What brand of detergent works best on ectoplasm?
The Haunting in Connecticut is another entry in the “supernatural thriller that’s based on a true story” genre. Does the reality of the situation make it more exciting, in a “this could happen to you” type of way, or does it hurt the movie, in that the creators are tethered to the real story and not able to go for broke for real horror movie craziness?
Teenager Matt Campbell (Kyle Gallner, Smallville) has cancer, and doesn’t have long to live. To be closer to a specialty hospital, he moves to Connecticut with his mother Sara (Virginia Madsen, Sideways), his cousin Wendy (Amanda Crew, Sex Drive), and two younger siblings. Matt’s hard-drinking dad Peter (Martin Donovan, Weeds) shows up from time to time as well. There’s something not quite right about the family’s new home. They’re told it “has a history.” Creepy old photos have been left behind by previous owners, and there’s a big, ominous black door that won’t open in the basement. Matt soon starts having dark and frightening visions, and he and Wendy believe they’re not alone in the house. With the help of a quirky reverend (Elias Koteas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Matt and his family explore the horrors of the house’s past, and, hopefully, find some way to quiet the spirits who just won’t leave them alone.
I understand that the whole “based on true events” thing is intended as a hook to draw in audiences, but I can’t help but think that it might actually harm the movie. Instead of getting caught up in the characters and the suspense, I kept questioning the truth of these “true events.” For everything that happened, I mentally stopped and asked, “Did this really happen?” That continually took me out of the movie.
I know, I know, it’s just a movie, and every movie based on a true story is going to take dramatic license in order both to streamline events into two hours and also to create the crowd-satisfying big moments. There are a lot of big moments in The Haunting in Connecticut. The big special effects set piece, which you can see in the trailer and on the DVD cover art, is the séance, in which the ectoplasm flows freely. There are also mutilated dead bodies walking around, slimy stuff found beneath floorboards, and Fredric Wertham’s “injury to the eye motif.” Creepy, slimy, spooky stuff all around. This is why those who like haunted house movies like haunted house movies.
Is it scary? Well, that’s subjective, of course. The movie alternates between atmospheric scares, through the use of shadows and eerie sound effects, and jump scares, with something popping up out of nowhere with an accompanying musical sting. I’ll admit that one jump scare did catch me by surprise and grayed a few hairs, but there are so many you get kind of used to them after a while. Much better is the use of sound, hinting all kinds of evil activity in the shadows, just beyond where we can see.
There’s another aspect to the movie, and that’s the family drama. As noted above, Matt suffers from terminal illness, and doesn’t have much time left. He’s put on an experimental medicine, and there’s some question as to whether hallucinations are among Matt’s symptoms. The film tries to play it both ways—at least for a while. This is interesting in that almost all of the ghostly scares are seen entirely from Matt’s point of view. It’s almost disappointing when, late in the film, other characters get into the act.
The story demands a lot from Kyle Gallner. Not only does he have to be haunted by spirits, but he also has to play the part of a character facing a deadly illness, and doing so with courage and good humor. He does a great job making the character both troubled and likable. Speaking of likable, Amanda Crew’s star continues to rise with this film. She has that girl-next-door charisma that make her a natural on screen. Virginia Madsen and Elias “Casey Jones” Koteas are both excellent, of course. Have these two ever not been excellent?
The picture quality is excellent, even in scenes with a lot of dark browns, which often leads to graininess in other DVDs. As noted above, the sound quality is excellent, making use of all five speakers with all kinds of directional effects. Very nice. The extras start off with two self-congratulatory commentaries, the first with the director, writers, a producer, and the editor, and the second with the director joined by Madsen and Gallner. What’s interesting about these is how the commentators admit which scenes are similar to other famous haunted house movies, and how they tried to take these famous shots their own. The featurette “Two Dead Boys” features plenty of behind the scenes footage and cast interviews. “The Fear is Real” is a two-part documentary about the real stories the movie is based on. It’s downright freaky how these people are so candid about interacting with ghosts and, as time went on, being terrorized by them. Totally weird. It gets even freakier in the “Memento Mori” featurette, which looks at the historic relationship between death and photography. The “Anatomy of a Haunting” featurette has a pair of experts discussing alleged real hauntings they’ve experienced. The extras finish up with deleted scenes with commentary, the theatrical trailer, and a second disc with the digital copy.
This is the unrated version of the movie, as opposed to the theatrical PG-13 version. The commentaries reveal that the differences were slight. In theaters, bloody scenes were discolored so the blood never looked red. On the DVD, though, that blood is bright red. This doesn’t make sense to me. Did the ratings people think audiences would say “Is that blood? No, wait, it’s reddish-brown and not bright red. Whew, for a minute there, I was almost emotionally scarred.”
Nitpick: So you move into a house and you find a big, black door in the basement that’s locked, what do you do? The characters in this movie just say “it must be storage” and ignore it. It seems to me that anyone else would want to get in there right away.
The Haunting in Connecticut is a mixed bag. It provides a lot of haunted house thrills, and yet there’s not much here that we haven’t seen in other haunted house movies. A group of better-than-the-material actors elevate this film enough so the dramatic elements are just as interesting as the spooks.