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"Some things cannot be explained," warn the posters. Well, amen to that: I'm at a total loss to explain why the claim "based on a true story" is supposed to make a movie scary, or why people persist in believing tales of supernatural hijinks long after they've been thoroughly debunked. Inspired by the supposedly well-documented account of a family's ordeal with unquiet spirits, The Haunting in Connecticut is this generation's Amityville Horror.
It's taking every ounce of strength Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) can muster to hold her family together as her teenager, Matt (Kyle Gallner), battles cancer. Money is tight, Sara's husband, Peter (Martin Donovan), is a recovering alcoholic, and her niece, Wendy (Amanda Crew), has moved in with them to escape her own family turmoil. After enrolling Matt in an experimental protocol, Sara opts to relocate the family closer to his hospital in Connecticut to avoid the exhausting commute. She makes an "executive decision" to take over a rambling rental house, overruling Peter's objections that they're in no financial position to pay both a mortgage and rent. The realtor offers a financial break; the house has "a bit of a history," he says.
And how: Matt is immediately beset by grisly dreams and visions involving corpses, maggots and misuse of mortuary instruments, all of which he keeps to himself for fear of being kicked out of the treatment program. By the time he and Wendy learn that the house was once a funeral home whose owner conducted creepy seances and abused dead bodies, the supernatural stuff is hitting the fan big time.
Director Peter Cornwall orchestrates Haunting in Connecticut's scares effectively, but they're mostly the standard fare: Fleeting glimpses of shadowy figures reflected in mirrors and TV screens, flickering lights, weird noises. Granted, you don't see globs of ectoplasmic goo streaming from the nose and mouth of a child medium every day, but there's a reason for that. The sight of supernatural snot is more likely to makes horror fans tremble with laughter than fear. And the story's pacing is off; instead of a slow, escalating build to the payoff, it proceeds in fits and starts and delivers most of the money shots (most of which are in the trailer) in a heated rush near the end, rather than spacing them out. That might be the result of trying to maintain the supposed real-life chronology of events; if so, a little more dramatic license should have been in order.
The irony is that if you ignore the spooky stuff, Haunting in Connecticut is an effective drama about a family coping with devastating illness. The scenes between Matt and Sara are especially well written, and Gallner and Madsen play the hell out of them, evoking the complicated, ever-shifting mixture of love, guilt, fear and remorse that binds them. Elias Koteas brings a delicate strength to the role of Reverend Popescu, a fellow cancer patient who knows a little something about restless spirits and a lot about the emotional cost of illness, both your own and that of someone you love. I could have watched a lot more of that and a lot less of the clichéd ooga-booga.