April 2, 2009

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The Haunting in Connecticut (PG-13)
A totally ho-hum horror movie gets kicked up a few notches thanks to some actual moments of “boo!” and to the treating-it-like-a-real-job performance of Virginia Madsen in The Haunting in Connecticut.

Sara Campbell (Madsen) is a woman facing plenty of truly terrifying horrors. Her oldest son, Matt (Kyle Gallner, the troubled Beaver Casablancas from Veronica Mars whose acting style still runs to the “permanent wince”), is near death from cancer. His only hope is an experimental treatment at a hospital hours from his family’s home, where dad Peter (Martin Donovan) is just barely keeping sober and equally barely paying the many mounting bills. Sara decides that, even though it will stretch this tense family even tighter, it will be best for Matt if they can rent a house near his hospital and she and the kids will move there. She finds a comfortable-sized house for her family, which includes another younger son and two girls (one a teenager, one younger), at least one of whom is a niece. The catch to a big roomy house in the Connecticut suburbs priced remarkably cheap? Let’s just say maybe you don’t put the dying kid in the gloomy basement with the creepy locked room and the sporatically-appearing ghost. (They do, of course, all the better that Gallner’s winces can cast shadows on his face.)

As trailers tell you, there are spooky goings-on at this house, the dull soul-sucking appearance of which would tell you in one glance that it is full of spookiness. And, because apparently there’s some kind of law about the way these stories progress, first nobody catches on to the spookiness, then they wonder if it’s just in Matt’s head and then it takes the appearance of some kind of reverend (Elias Koteas) to truly get everyone on the “those creaking noises aren’t just the house settling” bandwagon. Every haunted tale like this has some kind of creepy back story and Connecticut’s is decently creepy (some of those “disturbing images” the MPAA warns about feature eye-related terror, which always gets me) even if it isn’t shocking or particularly inventive. You probably won’t find yourself shocked or surprised by much here, but the movie does throw a few actual jolts at you and, after months of my not jumping at a single black-eyed blue-skinned devil-child who popped out of mirrors or trash bags in seemingly dozens of interchangeable horror movies, I’ll give it credit for actually making me spill some soda once or twice.

But really what makes this movie capable of being watched — not worthy, so much, but at least watchable — is Madsen’s performance (with a few scenes of “aw heck, might as well perform” from Donovan). She’s compelling, she’s natural. She seems like a real person who is really afraid of losing her son, really afraid of what’s going to happen to her husband (who seems to be teetering on the edge of personal disaster). She looks beautiful, luminous occasionally, but also like a person who might have a teenage son and might stay up nights crying about him. All this skill is completely wasted on a movie this nothing but it’s the difference between the “direct-to-video”-worthy grade I might have given it and the C- I’m giving because of Madsen.

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of terror and disturbing images. Directed by Peter Cornwell and written by Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe, The Haunting in Connecticut is an hour and 32 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.