I’ve got an idea for a great new ghost story movie. It’s one where filmmakers are haunted by the specters of all characters that had to sulk through their movies, dead-eyed, bored and lifeless between scenes. It would be an epic. Cast of thousands. Somewhere near front and center: the sad bastards in The Haunting in Connecticut.
The story is supposedly rooted in the Snedeker family’s paranormal encounters in Connecticut during the mid-’80s. (As recounted in prose and at least one other movie version.) The family moved into a house that had once been a funeral home; ghosts strolled and rattled their chains. The family made the papers and earned ghost story immortality.
Even if the Snedeker story is true, the film diverges so severely from the family account that there’s no use holding close to any of it at all. The aspects that carry over are diluted with events copy/pasted from The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist. The combination is wavering and thin, a sham medium’s projection instead of a true haunting.
A couple of genuine characters would make Haunting feel more like it’s own thing. You can stack chairs in the dining room and move a burial ground if the folks in the scenes aren’t Diane and Carol Anne Freeling. But they’ve got to be somebody, at least. This population of Connecticut makes paper-thin look obese: Religious Mom (Virginia Madsen), Once-Drunk Dad (Martin Donovan), Cancer Boy (Kyle Gallner), Cute Sis (Amanda Crew) and Filler Kids. There’s a Dying Minister (Elias Koteas), too.
Cancer Boy (real character name: Matt) is part of a new treatment program at a Connecticut hospital, so his family rents a big old house near the institution. From moment one, Matt sees things: shadowy presences behind the glassed-off room in the basement; a menacing, burned figure; visions of a man carving text onto a corpse.
The story wraps up extremist spiritualism in trappings of mind/body rebellion, so I could occasionally overlook the threadbare scripting. Matt’s cancer is weakening his body; the treatment is weakening his mind. He’s on a threshold between life and death, which allows him to see the house’s ugly history. He can sense the occult misfortune that took place when the home was a pre-burial workplace. He not only perceives one dead boy, trapped in the house, but may be cohabitating with him, in time or spirit.
But the cancer and body horror implications never go much deeper than the idea of sickness being on the doorway of death. This isn’t Cronenberg.
There’s a terrible filmmaking dissonance at work, too. Maybe I’m old-fashioned in thinking that there’s good reason to adhere to some of the established ghost-story greats: Robert Wise’s The Haunting (obvious, really); The Shining; even Polanski’s The Tenant, less a ghost story and more a paranoid nightmare. Point is, let the story do the work, rather than relying on flash tricks and jumpcut editing.
Look at this clip. I love the visualization of ectoplasm, but everything else is all over the tonal map. It also points to more character problems. It’s not enough to breathe life into your living, present characters when there are a few people trapped in the past that create the movie’s horror. For the old Overlook inhabitants, Kubrick could make instant icons with just a couple shots and lines of dialogue. The same approach never works here. When the dead people are far less interesting than the dull live ones, it undermines all the horror.
Is it fair to compare first-time feature director Peter Cornwell to Kubrick? Not at all, but I’m not the one who conjured up images and memories of great old ghost story films.
Elias Koteas at least has the sense to play things towards the small. His understatement made me want to know more about him. He’s fragile and sensitive without being creepy or cloying; most of the good moments are his. And I mostly liked Kyle Gallner as Cancer Boy; he’s almost got a Joaquin Phoenix by way of Brad Renfro appeal. He’s hardly as pronounced as either of those actors, but makes an impression. Gallner fills in the blanks for Matt, and I understood some of his pain and fear.
Yet finding the good bits is a lot of work for little reward. The ‘true story’ tag invites us to project our own fears onto the film, but even our half-remembered nightmares are more realized and more effective than this.