Peter Cornwell, 2009, USA-Canada
The opening credits of Peter Cornwell’s haunted/possessed house film are an example of the problem of Twenty-First Century supernatural horrors. It starts with a gallery of old black-and-white photographs, pictures of families posing with their dead loved ones in the style of old mementoes. However, this is broken up by flashes of running blood, all red and here-and-now. It is as if the film is anxious about holding the attention without the promise of contemporary gore. Tales of hauntings subsist on atmosphere and build-up, on the slow seeping in, of an unsettling ambience and the character of a troubled building and, usually, correspondingly troubled characters. It seems to be that the tempo of contemporary film-making and modern editing trends is all wrong for a successful supernatural horror. This tempo is so hungry for and anxious about holding audience attention, the audience attention-span being taken as uniformly and shockingly short, that it is oblivious to build-up and ambience. We are barely ten minutes in before we have our first fake-shock courtesy of a dream. This is unnecessary: the film does not know that simply having big, locked, imposing doors in the basement are enough to generate the creeps once our unfortunate protagonist decides to use the basement for a bedroom (!). Perhaps I am being unfair: a film like Fulci’s “The House by the Cemetery” has little rhythm, but it does somehow generate atmosphere and is redeemed by a couple of key set pieces, mainly the cellar denouement. Perhaps then “The Haunting in Connecticut” will pull a similar stunt.
The family has moved into this old big house to be closer to the hospital so that their son can be nearer his cancer treatment. Again, we don’t need scares so early when the pathos of a cancer victim engages our sympathy straight away: decent character involvement around this would hold our attention. Merging the son’s cancer with the haunting pays off dividends, but not as much as it ought: there is no ambiguity as to whether his hallucinations and visions are the product of his illness, for example. The ghosts pop up all over the place, all the time. And then there’s a nasty eye-lid clipping. It’s all too much too soon and counteracts the development of the uncanny that the best ghost stories ask for. The flashbacks should be far spookier than they are, but spooky flashbacks in the modern mainstream are frequently sabotaged by the snappy editing and film effects that refuse to let them breathe. Every supernatural occurrence is edited with jump-cuts, flares, black-outs and juddering effects so that they verge on the incomprehensible and certainly resemble music videos rather than visions of terror. The most hilarious sequence of sped-up editing and exposition is the cliché visit to the library where, seemingly in an hour or two, our characters unearth The Truth. Libraries are often the undoing of supernatural terrors.
There is family interaction winningly modelled on examples such as “Poltergeist” and the performances are all fine, considering the material given. Such schlock often benefits from seasoned actors, but what Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan and Elias Koteas are doing here other than picking up a pay check is the film’s real mystery. Well, that and why after experiencing terrifying supernatural phenomenon, the family doesn’t just leave. Koteas’ character - a minister also suffering from cancer - is especially silly, reeking more of deux ex machina than genuine character.
The film exhibits ickiness concerning death: a funeral home is obviously an undesirable building and host to all manner of angry spirits; the good family tries to keep bad things away with prayers. Surely this is a product of the side of American culture that has such difficulty dealing with death. It is ironic that so often with horrors that are so softly religious in a Judeo-Christian manner that prayers are inevitably all part of the creepiness, even as they are calling on the supernatural to provide solace and justice in life. Ghost stories often distrust the past, presenting it as a dangerous place, but ghost stories are also about grief and loss. But “The Haunting in Connecticut” is having no truck with death. Indeed, our cancer-ridden hero survives, returns from the dead even, fully recovered from terminal illness. All you need are God’s mysterious ways, which apparently involve a violent haunting, grave robbing and necromancy and a heavy dose of sentimentality. Yes, a haunting cures cancer. It’s an insultingly juvenile vision of mortality and one heavily mired in a denial that I am not even sure the film-makers care about.
To call this muddled, ridiculous and most of all grotesquely offensive is an understatement. If the Horror genre is chiefly concerned with death in all its guises and our fantasies for it, rarely has a religious horror film gone about so nakedly denying its omnipotence. And not for one minute would I entertain this as a “true story”.