This house is no bargain at any price

Billed as being "based on the true story," the sort-of spooky, sort-of stupid "The Haunting in Connecticut" follows a family who move into a rental home to put their cancer-stricken son closer to the clinic where he is receiv- ing experimental treatments. Caught between economic realities and difficult emotional truths, they stay put even after discovering that their new house was once a funeral home also used for rituals to speak with the dead.

Part of what makes "Connecticut" oddly watchable even as it drags is the oil-and-water mix of acting styles of the leads. Virginia Madsen's refined naturalism is an awkward fit with the sharp mannerisms of Martin Donovan, making them, as parents of the sick boy, unlikely scene partners and an even less likely married couple. As a cancer patient/reverend, only the creepy, chilly Elias Koteas -- who previously costarred with Madsen in the near-great B-movie "The Prophecy" -- finds a tone that works. The less said about wooden Kyle Gallner as the sick son, the better.

The film, from first-time feature director Peter Cornwell, seems most at ease when it is playing more like a domestic drama than a horror tale, with the rather unsettling implication early on that what is happening may be a hallucinatory side effect of the boy's trial cancer treatments. But "Haunting" suffers for its need to be sold as a straight-up horror film, and the fact it has been seemingly retrofitted as such. Cornwell never sees a mirror's reflection that doesn't deserve a shadowy figure in its background, or a dark corner that couldn't produce a moment of predictable shock.

As the movie is set in the pre-Internet 1980s, it does point to something more unique when it explores the interface between modern life, with its growing dependence on gadgets and gizmos and high-tech medical science, and what cultural critic Greil Marcus famously called "the old, weird America," that forgotten ancestral world of ghosts and seances, elixirs and the occasional box full of severed eyelids. And there is something downright charming when a character who is researching the history of the house goes to a (gasp!) library and uses microfilm.

Horror films are nothing if not bound by their conventions, and so it is always useful to point out new additions. Here's one: When the house you have newly rented has a dank, creepy basement with a mysterious door to a room of unknown purpose, do not -- I repeat, do not -- choose the basement as your bedroom. Likewise, if you discover your home was previously used for seances and necromancy, move out. Then again, these might not actually count as new horror rules, simply because simple common sense could lead you to these same conclusions, just as any sane person, horror fan or no, would do best to skip "The Haunting in Connecticut" for something else.



'The Haunting in Connecticut'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of terror and disturbing images

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: In wide release

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