Thursday, January 31, 2013

In praise/defense of The Haunting In Connecticut.

I have nothing but envy for those critics who got more out of Mama than I did.  But I do take issue with a certain thread that pops up in many of the more positive reviews, the idea that is somehow the first mainstream horror movie in forever to actually have three-dimensional human beings at its core.  To be frank, I think the prestige associated with producer Guillermo Del Toro and star Jessica Chastain has caused certain critics not so much to overpraise the film but to assign it undue credit in terms of presenting a humanistic horror film.  Just as each new 007 film sees cries of 'most feminist Bond girl ever!', I think at least some of the praise being heaped on Mama is perhaps selective amnesia in terms of the oft-derided horror genre.  For a prime example of a horror film that exists as a character drama first and a horror film second, one need only look at a film that's receiving a somewhat under-the-radar sequel this Friday, possibly tonight in certain theaters.  I'm talking of course about The Haunting In Connecticut.

First of all, the Spring 2009 release still ranks among Lionsgate's biggest opening weekends outside the Saw/Tyler Perry franchises.  Heck, when you discount Lionsgate's franchises (The Hunger Games and The Expendables, along with the aforementioned examples), it ranks as their second biggest opening weekend ($23 million, just behind the $23.4 million debut of Fahrenheit 9/11) and its $55 million gross puts it beyond the above examples and the $56 million gross of The Lincoln Lawyer.  But more important than its box office performance is the fact that it's good... really good.  While the previews merely advertised a somewhat conventional haunted house movie, it is really a sobering and moving drama about a young man dying of cancer. The would-be haunted house that his family moves into is merely a temporary residence so that Matt (a superb Kyle Gallner) doesn't have to drive hours on-end to and from his crippling chemotherapy treatments.  Yes we get the usual things that go bump in the night and we get the usual spooky noises and terrifying imagery, but the focus is firmly rooted on a family falling apart as they prepare themselves for the seemingly inevitable death of the oldest child in the family.

The film is not filled with CW-friendly stars but rather actors on the scale of Virgina Madsen, Tate Donovan, and the always terrific Elias Koteas.  They treat this material with the respect it deserves, and the result is a genuinely character-driven horror film that is all-the-scarier because we like those being terrorized.  The emphasis is placed not on the ghosts and spirits, but of the very real and obviously relatible medical trauma.  As a result, the apparent haunting becomes merely an insult to injury, one further torment for a family that is already pushed to the brink.  The film's best moments are not the scares or the startles.  It's the intimate chemotherapy sessions where Gallner discusses mortality with Koteas (a priest also on death's door).  It's the moments when Donavan's patriarch finally confronts the likely death of his son or when Gallner begs Madsen not to blame herself when he's gone.  Ironically, what director Peter Cornwell and writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe do best is what I wished Mama did: keep the focus on the family drama at instead of the supernatural elements, which in turn makes the genre conventions both scary and genuinely sad.

The Haunting In Connecticut stands as an example of everything a movie like this is supposed to be.  It's smartly written with genuinely engaging scare scenes, but anchored by a genuine character drama that takes precedence over the genre demands.  It is filled with fine actors delivering fine performances, seemingly unaware that they are acting in a film from a somewhat maligned genre.  Gallner, Madsen, Donovan, and Koteas are terrific and the film honors their work by highlighting it rather than brushing it aside to get to the next jump scare.  Now I've often said that it's not necessary to trash one movie in order to praise another.  So let me reiterate that Mama is a pretty decent horror movie but one that focuses on the supernatural at the expense of its more compelling human drama.  The Haunting In Connecticut does the opposite and is even stronger for it.  In short, if you liked Mama, you'll love The Haunting In Connecticut.

Scott Mendelson


Ziserwahn said...

Loved this movie, saw it on opening night back in 09'. My little brother pissed himself. You're right about everything but I think you understate how creepy this flick is.

Sonya K said...

Just watched The Haunting in Connecticut after seeing your recommendation....and it truly is a moving (and deeply creepy) flick. Inspired me to get home cleaning done late last night - could not sleep until I had "fixed some wiring" behind the wall.
Was the first release different from the final DVD release? I missed this movie completely when it came out but now, reading the brutal reviews online, it's hard to believe that many of the critics panning it were watching the same movie. Sounds like the box office gross for it was decent as well...quite a disconnect.


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