Apparently the Amityville venue was already booked for the season—or perhaps the rent was too high—so the makers of this new haunted house movie have moved to Connecticut (actually Manitoba, which suggests the financial motive) to tell their strangely predictable tale of a family that gets more than they bargained for when they move into a place with a past. It’s déjà vu all over again; even the eighties setting comes across as familiar.
The victims are the Campbell clan, especially mom Sara (Virginia Madsen) and older son Matt (Kyle Gallner), whose cancer is the reason for renting the house, which is close to the clinic where he’s being treated. Along with Matt’s younger brother Billy (Ty Wood) and their cousins Wendy (Amanda Crew) and Mary (Sophi Knight), they take up residence in the place—a former funeral home where weird goings-on, including seances and odd abuse of corpses, once took place—while paterfamilias Peter (Martin Donovan) is mostly away at work (though he occasionally goes off on a drinking binge).
Of course, ghostly stuff starts happening, centering on Matt, who begins to experience grisly apparitions that he takes to be hallucinations caused by his radiation treatments and medications. Ultimately the cause is revealed: the place was once a mortuary where an extraordinarily gifted young medium named Jonah (Erik Berg) contacted the departed under the watchful gaze of owner Ramsey Aickman (John Bluethner). Their work, however, also included mysterious rituals involving stealing and mutilating corpses, and ended badly when one of their séances ended in the deaths of the participants. Now, it appears, the spirit of Jonah, often looking like a Crispy Critter, is tormenting Matt, who can see him because he’s at the very edge of death himself. Fortunately some sort of priest, a fellow cancer patient named Popescu (Elias Koteas), is on hand to look into the matter and try to exorcise the evil in the house. But the situation turns out to be considerably more complex than he first suspects.
On the positive side, “The Haunting in Connecticut” avoids the gruesome blood-letting and sadism that are so large a part of most modern horror movies, and it has a pretty classy look, courtesy of director Peter Cornwell and cinematographer Adam Swica. It also boasts a couple of better-than-average performances from Gallner (Impulse on “Smallville” and a recurrent character on “CSI NY”), who nicely captures Matt’s vulnerability, and Koteas, who offers welcome restraint as the knowledgeable clergyman (a real contrast to Rod Steiger’s blowsy overplaying in a similar part in the first “Amityville”). And the rest of the cast, though not in the same league, get by.
But the picture is so old-fashioned in its effects that it seems positively quaint; it resembles nothing so much as one of those “scary” primetime telefilms that ABC specialized in during the 1970s. Most of the supposedly chilling moments arise from such hoary expedients as figures briefly appearing in mirrors or scurrying behind living souls, or doors suddenly slamming shut, or blurred visions of medical instruments being put to unwholesome use, or insert shots of squiggly worms and decomposing bodies. All are accompanied, of course, by the usual loud, abrupt musical cues, here provided by Robert J. Kral. More extravagant but distinctly less successful are the CGI sequences of ectoplasm streaming from the mouths of séance participants. Good taste dictates that one not be too specific about what that looks like.
“The Haunting in Connecticut” claims to be based on a true story (there was a book about it by Ray Garton called “In a Dark Place,” as well as a Discovery Channel program)—so did “Amityville,” of course—and the narrative is bookended by sequences in which Sara testifies on film about the family’s experiences. But serious doubts have been raised about the veracity of the claims. In any event, here Sara closes her remarks after the big (and literally fiery) finale by solemnly intoning, “Consider yourself warned.” Although the picture isn’t nearly as offensive as many of its ilk, those are words that should be repeated by critics to potential viewers.