When people ask me if I believe in ghosts, I always tell them this story. Years ago, when I was in my late teens, I was invited to spend the summer at my sister's quaint little New England home by the sea. It was a beautiful house, and, being built around 1620, the oldest in her town. She and her then-husband fixed the place up nicely, filling it with period appointments and furnishings, and methodically restoring each and every nook and cranny using only the paint colors and materials available to their forefathers. It was a true labor of love, and, like I said, it was a beautiful house.
Too bad it was haunted.
Things had started innocently enough. For the first year or so that they lived there, my sister would joke about stuff disappearing and reappearing in random places, dishes being moved, lights flickering; the usual "fun" stuff people who own old houses proudly credit to the spirits of past inhabitants. They'd jokingly warned me about their "ghost", but I, as most people would, shrugged it off. It wasn't until I started smelling the funny, sugary-sweet odors, and hearing the slamming of doors and bustling activity from empty rooms in the dead of night that I started to believe them.
I couldn't shake the feeling that something was in the room with me whenever I lay down to sleep; a stifling presence that filled me with a dread and anxiety I’d never quite experienced before. My fifth night there, I awoke to the feeling of being suffocated. I sat bolt upright, and caught a glimpse of a shadowy-something drifting lazily across the living room. I spent the rest of the evening until the crack of dawn watching infomercials and huddling with the family dog. Needless to say, I left the next morning. My sister's husband teased me about it, and had a good laugh at my expense. My sister laughed, too, but there was a nervousness in it that worried me. We said goodbye. I didn't realize then that it would be for the last time.
A few months later, my sister's husband murdered his family as they slept. When the police arrived, he was sitting in the corner with a grin on his face, telling them that he did it "because the house told him to". A week later he was found hanged in his prison cell, the walls adorned with strange symbols smeared with his own blood. Investigators discovered a hidden sub-basement in the house, with a series of tunnels that led to various parts of the town. Inside one of the tunnels, they found the remains of over two-dozen men, women, and children. Historians suggested they were the remains of fugitive slaves traveling the underground railroad. Others had far more nefarious theories.
Of course, none of what you just read is true. Okay, some of it is. The bits about the slamming doors and my experience with the smothering shadow beasty are true, but the rest is fabricated. It's an example of the power of exaggeration. My sister's still alive and well (depending who you ask) and lives in a condo with her new boyfriend. Her ex-husband is still a friend of the family, and visits regularly. My nieces are both perfectly well-adjusted adults. Still, we're all absolutely convinced that their house was haunted, and, when we see each other, we still swap our individual recollections about the place. Our stories change and get more elaborate with every passing year, but that's half the fun. Eventually, one of our accounts will end with Satan himself rising up through the floorboards and dragging the house back down to hell with him.
That's just the nature of a "paranormal" experience.
People experience something strange and unexplainable, and, when they share this experience with others, they tend to build upon it for dramatic effect. A dish falling harmlessly off of a shelf becomes a malevolent platter of doom shooting across a kitchen that nearly beheads the storyteller. A flickering light bulb becomes an indoor electrical storm that would make Nikolai Tesla piss himself. Eventually, some of these stories become so far out and fantastic that it's impossible to reel them back in, and, once the public gets wind of them, they take on a life of their own. The case of the Haunting in Connecticut seems to be one such example.
In the 1980's, the Snedeker family moved into an old funeral home in rural Connecticut to be closer to the hospital where there cancer-stricken son was receiving experimental treatments. It is here that the Snedekers claimed to have witnessed all manner of paranormal activity, especially centered around their critically ill son, but skeptical investigators found that the individual family members couldn't keep their stories straight, and their claims were dismissed as hokum. Of course that didn't stop folks from cashing in on paranormal enthusiasts looking for the next Amityville Horror, and, subsequently, a book (In a Dark Place), several television shows, and, now, a major motion picture have brought the Snedeker's tale to the masses.
The film opens with a title card informing us that it's based on a true story, and that the names have been changed to protect the identities of the actual participants. We are then introduced to Sara and Matt Campbell (Virginia Madsen and Kyle Gallner) as they make the long trek home from one of Matt's daily cancer treatments in Connecticut. Sara has been driving her son eight hours each way, everyday, but, as the side-effects from the treatments are getting progressively worse, Sara feels Matt can't handle that sort of travel anymore, and she and her husband, Peter (Martin Donovan), agree to rent a home closer to the clinic. Sara settles on a somewhat rundown country manse with reasonable rent, and she and Matt spend the first night there camping out on the floor in sleeping bags. Almost immediately Matt experiences something strange, but, because hallucinations are one of the potential side-effects of his treatment that could get him kicked off the study, he doesn't mention this to his mother. The rest of the family soon arrives, and, for a few days, anyway, things go okay for everyone save for Matt, who seems to not only be getting sicker, but is being barraged by visions of the house's former occupants.
Matt shares his experiences with a fellow cancer patient, Reverend Nicholas Popescu (Elias Koteas), who is no stranger to paranormal phenomena. He tells Matt that the spirits in the house are drawn to him because he, himself, is walking the thin line between life and death and is, therefore, more susceptible to their influence. Matt's family starts to notice his erratic behavior, but, fearing exposing this to Matt's doctors will result in the termination of his treatment, Sara and Peter keep it to themselves, and pray that it will pass. It isn't long before the rest of the family begin experiencing strange occurrences, and Matt and his cousin, Wendy (the impossibly attractive Amanda Crew) call on Reverend Popescu for his assistance. What he discovers in this house, however, is a far greater evil than he's ever encountered.
The Haunting in Connecticut is an entertaining, occasionally frightening flick that brings to mind the gloriously cheesy and exploitative Satanic possession flicks of the seventies and early eighties, but all gussied up with slick special effects, high production values, and a strong ensemble cast the likes of which aren't usually seen in the genre. Madsen, Koteas, and the magnetic Gallner all deliver quality performances, and director, Peter Cornwell, shows he knows what buttons to push to goose his audience. Scares are fairly rapid-fire, here, though; so much so that they begin to lose their effect by the final act. Of course, by then, we're hopelessly invested in the film's wonderfully silly "mystery" and it's bat-shit-insane ending - involving necromancy, demons, and dozens of corpses - does not disappoint.
Lionsgate brings The Haunting in Connecticut to BD with a solid 2.35:1 1080p transfer that offers a crisp, multidimensional image, solid blacks, and an overall pleasing image that is only marred by the occasional overabundance of grain. The film's color palette runs the gamut from full spectrum to sepia tinged (the flashback sequences) and, while stylistically muted, the colors come are bold and bleed free. The 7.1 DTS MA soundtrack is magnificent, and boasts some truly absorbing and organic surround sound work. The track gives the entire system a workout, with sounds originating from all parts of the soundfield, each presented so clearly and accurately, you'll swear they were coming from inside your own house and not emanating from a speaker in your viewing room. The film is LOUD on occasion, but never at the expense of dialogue, and, while the track's main strengths lay in its ability to shock the viewer with various stings, booms, and slams, subtle atmospheric effects aren't overlooked, and are presented with equal attention to sonic detail. Great stuff!
Extras include both the rated and unrated versions of the film, as well as a pair of commentary tracks - one from director Peter Cornwell, Producer Andy Trapani, Writer Adam Simon, and Editor Tom Elkin, and another with Cornwell and Madsen and Gallner. I preferred the second commentary, as Madsen takes control and makes for a humorous and informative moderator. It's almost impossible for Cornwell and Gallner to get a word in edgewise, but it's obvious that the actress was very passionate about her role and the project as a whole, and just has a lot to say about it! The Blu-ray boasts a great collection of 1080p featurettes, including the lengthy and rather absorbing (if not entirely believable) two-part documentary, The Fear is Real: Reinvestigating the Haunting, which features interviews with the actual Snedeker family, as well as snapshots and footage of the actual home interspersed with scenes from the film. Memento Mori: The History of Post-Mortem Photography is a fascinating look at the lost art of death photography, in which family members would pose with a deceased loved one for portraits. Other extras include a Making Of featurette, a collection of deleted scenes (in standard definition), and HD trailers for this and other Lionsgate releases. A second disc includes a digital copy of the film for playback on your portable devices.
The Haunting in Connecticut received quite the critical drubbing upon its release, but this isn't the type of film I'd imagine a mainstream critic appreciating. I found it to be a very entertaining supernatural shocker. It's infinitely superior to the seemingly endless string of Ringu and Grudge clones that have been passed off as ghost stories for the better part of the decade, and a much-needed reprieve from the genre's recent torture porn obsession. Lionsgate's Blu-ray is superb, offering a solid visual presentation, above-average soundtrack, and a wealth of entertaining extras that will keep fans of the film coming back for more. Those looking for a believable and provocative haunted house story will probably want to give this one a pass, but if an hour and a half of gothic thrills and goofy chills sounds good to you, The Haunting in Connecticut delivers the goods.