The Haunting in Connecticut
- Review by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2009 27 Mar
I have to wonder whether it really benefits a horror movie to claim that it's based on a true story. Yes, some viewers are drawn to the "credibility" of the events out of curiosity. Others—including Christians—are turned off by the prospect of facing supernatural evil which they already understand to be real under the guise of "entertainment."
The filmmakers responsible for The Haunting in Connecticut are fascinated with the supernatural, particularly the account of the Snedeker family, featured in of the 2002 TV documentary A Haunting in Connecticut. Of course, true-life accounts are always altered to make a better movie, so regardless of what you believe, the events depicted here should be taken with a grain of salt. Even the author of the original book depicting the Snedeker family's paranormal encounter questions their story, as do other residents of Southington, Connecticut.
All of that is a little beside the point. Fact or fiction, it all comes down to whether or not the story can serve as the foundation for a good old-fashioned scary movie. In that capacity, The Haunting in Connecticut is fairly serviceable, delivering the creepy chills without relying heavily on violence and gore.
The story takes place in 1987, with the Campbell family—changing the names for this film—struggling to help eldest son Matt through a clinical trial for cancer. They are depicted as a religious family that regularly prays, and one character is a priest who offers comfort to others from the Bible. But the film never spends enough time on these subjects to fully explore them.
To help cut down on the long commute from their home in New York to the hospital in Connecticut, the Campbells purchase a second home closer to where he's receiving his special treatments. Peter, the father, continues to work out of New York and commutes for the weekends, while Sara works and watches over the three kids in Connecticut with assistance from her college-age niece, Wendy.
The Campbells get a good deal on their Connecticut home, and it isn't long before we find out why. Turns out that the house was a funeral home in the early 1900s, with the mortuary more or less intact in the basement where Matt sleeps. And if that wasn't creepy enough, Matt starts experiencing strange noises, shadowy apparitions, and strange hallucinations.
This is actually the most compelling part of the story. Since Matt is initially the only one experiencing these paranormal visions, he wonders if they're real or a side effect of his cancer treatment. And since his doctor has said the treatments will stop if he experiences hallucinations, he tries to convince himself that it's all in his mind.
Unfortunately, Matt isn't the only one who experiences these encounters. Rather than keep the focus on Matt's sanity, the film soon shifts to the usual hokum about occult practices and spirits trapped between worlds, as he and Wendy work to uncover the mystery of their house—a la Scooby Doo. Matt even conveniently befriends a fellow cancer patient who also happens to be a Reverend knowledgeable in the supernatural; you can bet he'll come in handy later on.
We've seen all of this before. Think of The Haunting in Connecticut as Poltergeist lite, with bits of The Shining and The Amityville Horror thrown in. It has the ebb and flow of the typical ghost story thriller involving a family—not overly derivative, but not particularly original either.
Nevertheless, first-time director Peter Cornwell does a reasonably good job of delivering the scares while grounding it all with a sense of reality. The script is practical and relatable, with strong acting throughout, particularly Kyle Gallner as Matt, Virginia Madsen as Sara, and Elias Koteas as Reverend Popescu (looking a little like a skinnier Robert DeNiro). I appreciate a ghost story like this that doesn't rely on the stupidity of its characters or the confusion over its plot to elicit thrills. For the most part, The Haunting in Connecticut feels like what would happen if a real family faced unreal circumstances in their home, and that's no simple feat in the horror genre.
As a PG-13 film resorting to the usual gimmicks and atmosphere—dark basements, loud noises, sinister music, "gotcha!" scares—The Haunting in Connecticut will probably leave most horror aficionados unfazed. But it'll be plenty frightening for others. While it doesn't rely on violence and gore, the editing is often visceral and intense. Most of the scares involve ghostly corpses with incantations etched into their skin, and in one creepy flashback, we see a mortician prepare to remove an eyelid from a body. (We don't see it, but still … yeesh.) Most of the ads play up a bizarre scene with a boy spurting "ectoplasm" (paranormal slime) from his mouth—weird and creepy, yes, but rather fake-looking and more on par with Ghostbusters than The Exorcist.
What's missing from The Haunting in Connecticut is a stronger sense of originality and deeper thematic resonance. The thing that impressed us most at CT Movies about 2005's The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the way it delivered chills while thoughtfully addressing the roles of faith and God in a horror film about belief in the unseen. (With that film, it probably helped that the director, Scott Derrickson, is an evangelical.)
The Haunting in Connecticut flirts with similar fare, with a religious family and a priest playing central roles. But it doesn't explore them deeply enough; they're more like throwaway lines than meaningful themes, resulting in a fairly good film with wasted potential for something more. Take the closing narration as an example: "God works in mysterious ways." Terrific that the film addresses faith and God working through all circumstances, but it's not clear how that statement relates to the events we've just seen. (And it might be a reference to the movie's postscript following that statement).
All in all, one could do much worse in the horror genre than The Haunting in Connecticut, in both content and storytelling. Is it a true account? In the context of a movie, does it really matter? It may not be a benchmark classic, but the film is more accessible than most of its kind and generally delivers on what audiences are expecting: things that go bump in the dark.
- Does the fact that this film is based on a "true story" enhance or detract from your enjoyment? Do you believe the family's account to be true after seeing it?
- Do you believe in ghosts? What does Christianity teach about ghosts, demons, evil spirits, and black magic? Whether or not you believe in such supernatural manifestations, what's the most important thing to remember? (See Matt. 8:28-40, Matt. 17:14-20, Luke 4:33-36, and Eph. 6:10-18 for examples.)
- What do you think of Reverend Popescu? Is he a model pastor? In what ways does he demonstrate the Christian faith? In what ways does he seem to deviate from it?
- The movie begins by asking "Why do bad things happen to good people?" What's your answer for that as a Christian? If you were acquainted with the family in this movie, what would you tell them regarding Matt's cancer, if not the haunting they experience?
- The movie concludes by noting that "God works in mysterious ways." What do you think is meant by that in the film's context? Has good work been accomplished as a result of the events depicted? Assuming that some of the movie's details are factual, do you feel that the good that was accomplished is due to science, coincidence, or the hand of God?
The Haunting in Connecticut is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of terror and disturbing images." Aside from one irreverent use of Jesus' name, the language is clean. There's no violence per se, but the editing gives it all an intense visceral feel—particularly when a teenage girl is attacked by a shower curtain and a young teen spews "ectoplasm" from his mouth during a séance (weird and gross, but not gory). Most of the scares involve ghostly corpses with occult incantations etched into their skin; a teenage boy wakes up with similar markings, apparently through some form of stigmata. The movie combines elements of Poltergeist and The Shining, and though it's not as frightening as either, The Haunting in Connecticut has enough scares and disturbing images to leave an impression.