When approached with thoughtfulness, sincerity, and creativity, the fantasy/horror genres can be an ideal place to deal with such weighty, real-world issues as the loss of a child (The Orphanage) or the breakup of a family (The Shining). By occasionally breaking from reality, those genres allow talented writers and filmmakers to skillfully address issues that may be too tender to deal with effectively in a grounded, dramatic setting. Then there's The Haunting in Connecticut, a two-for-flinching frightener that lazily dusts off that tired old "Based on True Events" claim in hopes of getting under our skin before we've even set eyes on ye old haunted house. And while there are certainly plenty of opportunities to explore such intimate topics as death and family dynamics here, what we get instead is a haunted house yarn devoid of both atmosphere and content -- a film that pays lip service to some interesting ideas, but is far too concerned with pleasing a large crowd to be anything more than another instantly forgettable fright flick.
The story gets under way in June of 1987, as Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) and her teenage son, Matt (Kyle Gallner), drive home from the hospital, where Matt is undergoing an experimental cancer treatment. He's growing weaker by the day, and fearing that the long car rides to Connecticut compound his suffering, Sara suggests to her husband, Peter (Martin Donovan), that they simply move closer to the hospital. Shortly thereafter, Sara makes an executive decision and purchases a former funeral parlor with a dark history. Almost immediately, Matt begins experiencing strange visions involving a young boy and a malevolent mortician, but are these visions a side effect of his treatment (which, according to the doctor, can cause hallucinations), or a genuine supernatural phenomenon? Later, in the hospital, Matt befriends fellow cancer patient Reverend Popescu (Elias Koteas), whose current status as a dying man makes him a unique candidate to investigate the strange events (Popescu claims that those who hover between life and death are more strongly connected to the supernatural world). Faced with irrefutable proof that their house is haunted, the Campbells call on Popescu to exorcise the home. Unfortunately for all involved, things don't go exactly as planned.
So, you've got your haunted house, your struggling family, your aged exorcist, your creepy mortician, and your child medium -- all the makings of a solid horror flick, right? Sure, only much like baking a cake, you need to measure out each of the ingredients carefully in order to get something truly delicious. And while head bakers (read: screenwriters) Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe poured enough chocolate into the mix to bankrupt Godiva, they sadly forgot the flour. For a film like The Haunting in Connecticut to succeed, we need to connect with the Campbells and experience their valiant struggle to keep Matt from succumbing to cancer. But Simon and Metcalfe would rather make us jump at shadowy figures and squirm at the sight of CG ectoplasm than conjure up any sort of emotional attachment to the characters, so any scene with actual substance is quickly glossed over in favor of cheap, poorly paced shocks.
Of course, not every haunted house film requires the audience to connect with the protagonists, but therein lies the rub -- The Haunting in Connecticut can't seem to decide whether it wants to be a quiet horror film that gradually works its way under our skin, or a fun shock-a-minute spook-fest that simply aims to rattle us. Perhaps with someone assured at the helm this problem could have been solved, but, alas, Peter Cornwell's clumsy directing (why is a wrinkled forehead taking up a third of the frame during the penultimate supernatural confrontation in the hospital, anyway?) ensures that inconsistency triumphs over logic in the end. So, while viewers seeking to be lulled to sleep and then jolted awake at random intervals may find plenty to scream about in The Haunting in Connecticut, anyone else is advised to avoid the film as if it were an actual haunted house.