The Problem with Haunted Houses…

As far as haunted house movies go, “The Haunting in Connecticut” isn’t bad. In fact, it has a lot going for it: the premise is unique, first and foremost, and the characters all feel fresh.

At the story’s center is a boy suffering through cancer treatment, and the film actually does an admirable job of showcasing the emotional strain that this can place on a family. A lesser movie–or a network television show, even–would have resorted to cliche and stereotype in using the cancer victim, but “Haunting” tries to really do this right. I give it credit for not taking the easy way out, as so many bad horror movies might have done. We have real terminology, real shots of the hospital treatment, and a somewhat realistic look at the financial burden that a family can find itself in…it’s easy for Hollywood filmmakers to use the word “cancer” in a movie, shave the head of the victim, and call it a day. I don’t mean to sound crass, just to emphasize the laziness of many writers in their characterization and research, and to emphasize the risk that the writers here have taken (hell, it’s tough to write a movie about cancer that isn’t depressing, also, and they’ve managed to do it).

The cast is also superb. I’ve loved Virginia Madsen ever since “Candyman” (my personal favorite horror film), and it’s nice to see her in a spooky movie again. She brings a toughness to these sorts of films that many female leads–and scream queens–simply cannot muster. They might grit their teeth and yell, but Madsen’s strength is always shaky, oscillating between pain/vulnerability and an unshakable inner resolve. Simply put, she always makes you root for her character.

My problem with “The Haunting in Connecticut,” though, is with the story itself. When this movie is focused on the characters, it works, because the cast is great and the characters are interesting. But when it tries to force the plot along, it just feels…well, forced. The film creates an elaborate mythology to explain the haunting, and continually flashes back and forth between some historical events and the present day, and also wants to provide twist after twist after twist in the final thirty minutes. It’s enough to make you long for the days of the simple haunted house story: in “Poltergeist,” there was a house built on an Indian burial ground, and some lost spirits wanted a little girl to lead them to the light. So they kidnapped her, and then the family had to try to get her back. Easy, and scary as hell.

But it seems that now, in the post-Sixth-Sense and post-The-Others era, we’ve got to make the backstory as elaborate as possible, a combination of good ghosts and bad ghosts, a who can you trust? plot to go along with the haunting itself, so that we’re never sure why anything is actually happening until the final frames of the film.

The result, of course, is a convoluted haunting, one that–after the movie is over–you start to wonder how anyone could ever unravel the details behind it. Even the ghosts themselves. You start to wonder if they ever sat back for a moment and said, “Wait. So why are we haunting this place again?” At least in “Poltergeist,” the ghosts had an easy-to-understand motivation. In “Haunting in Connecticut,” the human characters are fun to watch, but the ghosts are so confusing that you can’t really take them seriously…they’re like a bad freshman composition essay, all cut and pasted from random wikipedia pages, explaining nothing, offering nothing new to the world, uncertain of why they exist but happy at least that they made the minimum page count, and hopeful that no one asks any tough questions about the logic contained therein.

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