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A Lot Like the State

By Dustin Rowles | Film | March 27, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | March 27, 2009 |

There are less than a handful of haunted house movies that actually work, and the ones that do answer the most basic question underlying the subgenre: Why don’t they just get the hell out? The Shining, for instance, worked because they were in the middle of nowhere during the winter and had nowhere else to go. The grand poobah of haunted house films, The Haunting, worked because they were experts, and they wanted to stay there (at least, initially). The Poltergeist worked because it was a kid’s horror movie, and kids don’t ask obvious questions.

But it’s that question that undermines both The Amityville Horror and the ridiculously inferior, The Haunting in Connecticut, and like Amityville, Haunting is supposedly based on a true story, which means that we’re not only expected to believe that stupid fictional characters aren’t smart enough to walk out, but that the real people they are supposedly based on were too goddamn dumb vacate a house haunted by demonic spirits. At least in Amityville, they’d sunk some cash in the place and didn’t want to give up their down payment. In The Haunting in Connecticut, the only thing going for the house was that the rent was cheap and the location was good, although even that latter point is debatable. We are talking about Connecticut here, a state so bland it doesn’t even have any respectable stereotypes (they’re rich! White! And Suburban! Ouch).

The Haunting in Connecticut follows the Campbell family. They rent out a house in Connecticut because it’s closer to the hospital, where the eldest son, Matt (Kyle Gallner, “Veronica Mars’” Beaver Casablancas), receives his experimental treatment for cancer. He’s apparently in a bad way, and this particular experimental treatment causes him to hallucinate. The hallucinatory matters aren’t helped by the fact that they chose a house that was once a funeral home, and not just any funeral home: It was a place where séances took place. The old owners — who had a habit of digging up dead bodies, cutting off their eyelids, and stuffing them into the walls — died during one of those séances. Apparently, the dead spirits in the house attacked them all. The psychic medium was even trapped in a cremation oven and burned to death. His spirit still lingers around the house. And, either because of the hallucinations, or because he’s got cancer and is thus somewhere in between life and death (or, the Valley in the Shadow of Death, as the scriptwriters so obviously put it), Matt can thus see the dead and charred psychic dead boy wondering around the house (nothing, other than the fact that this family moved into the house and the son had cancer, is actually based on reality).

Virginia Madsen plays Matt’s mom, Sara. It’s her job to look somber, cry occasionally, and keep the family living in the house (decent rent and all) until everything comes to a head. Martin Donovan plays the alcoholic father, whose sole purpose in this movie is to come home drunk one night and break all the lights. Haunted houses, after all, are far more scary when you can’t turn on the lights. Amanda Crews plays the live-in niece, who babysits. She says, “Go upstairs,” a lot.

Even among the subset of horror movies that eschew violence for dreariness and atmospherics, The Haunting in Connecticut is a particularly dull one. There is absolutely no reason to care for a single one of the characters — they have negative personality and no human emotion to speak of, besides grief and sorry. Indeed, not one single smile is cracked during the entire film. And given what we learn within the first 45 seconds of the movie — that it’s based on a true story, and that Matt is still alive — there’s never any real threat posed by the house. It’s invaded with spirits — what’s the best they can do? Slam doors? Appear in the mirror?

Not that The Haunting in Connecticut is actually based on a “true story.” It’s based on the claims of one woman, who alleged she heard noises at night and saw demonic spirits in the house, although she and her family lived there for two-and-a-half years (Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were involved in the Amityville case, apparently moved in for two months and rid the house of demonic forces). She also claimed that her teenage son began wearing dark clothing and writing morbid poetry after they moved in, which probably had nothing to do with being a freakin’ teenager in Connecticut. And apparently, the woman — who has since moved out — is still troubled by those “negative forces,” which is to say that she, like this movie, is completely full of bullshit. What I don’t understand, however, is that if you’re going to take this many dramatic liberties, i.e., make the entire thing up whole cloth, then why not at least make it a compelling movie? There’s nothing particularly frightening about it; the jump-scare moments aren’t even effective; the tension is nil; and the manufactured twist in the end barely feels as such because there’s never enough substance to twist off of. You can’t be tricked if you never knew you were playing a game. And the only con here is the price for your admission ticket.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.