Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where I Draw The Line: Funeral Home in Connecticut

Imagine this if you will. You’re at a restaurant and the waiter comes over and asks if you’re ready. You tell him you can’t quite decide what you want. He asks what kind of food you like. “Pasta,” you say. “From where?” he asks. Confused, but intrigued, you give the name of your favorite Italian restaurant. “What else?” he asks. You tell him your favorite cut of meat and its point of origin, your favorite salad and where you ate it last, your favorite sushi roll and where you like to get it from. He listens and writes it all down and then to your astonishment, he produces the items you like from each of your favorite places to eat. Then, as if to deliberately make you angry, he eats it all in front of you and then leaves. A short while later he returns and shits it out for you, hands you the bill, and says “You’re welcome, gratuity not included!” Then the rest of the people who'd been dining near you started alternately laughing, screaming, and saying "No He DID NOT!" That is the closest approximation to my experience watching The Haunting in Connecticut. Writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe padded their script with one genre cliché after another and director Peter Cornwall managed to stage them in exactly the same way they’ve been done before. It was like someone serving digested remains of much better horror films while at the same time making light of cancer, alcoholism, and death. Luckily I had press passes and was spared the profound embarrassment of having to pay the 8 dollars admission price for this farcical bowel movement of a film. Even luckier, I was in a room full of people who voiced their every thought as the film progressed, some much louder than others.

The Haunting In Connecticut
by Peter Cornwall
To make sure that his audience would know right away that this film would be exactly the same as all other horror films, he frames it with a fake interview with concerned mother Sara Campbell. This film is based on a Discovery Channel special in case you were wondering. The events are supposed to be true, but what movie with Haunting in the title that doesn’t come from the Shirley Jackson story doesn’t claim some lame basis in fact? Anyway Sara’s son Matt has cancer and it’s really bumming everyone out. She buys a house in Connecticut close to the hospital that he gets treatment at to make things easier, without consulting her husband, Peter. They move in with….well I know the little boy is the Campbell’s younger son, but who are those two? There’s a woman in her twenties called Wendy who has a daughter that calls Sara her aunt. But no one actually says what they’re relationship is. There’s no way that Wendy and Sara are sisters; they look nothing alike and easily have a twenty year age difference and she doesn’t have the last name Campbell. The little girl would appear to be her daughter, but Wendy looks like she’s in her senior year of college. Also Matt phrases a few things “remember when we were kids?” to Wendy, which would imply that they grew up together, yet she doesn’t appear to be the Campbell’s eldest daughter So….what the hell’s going on?

Anyway, Matt stupidly moves into the basement which they figure out shortly after was the spot where the previous owners of the house cut dead folks up; this was a funeral home, you see; that’s where all the evil stuff comes from. What evil stuff? Well people appear in mirrors and then disappear, Matt has spooky dreams about the old funeral director, they find old pictures of dead folks and a box of eyelids in the floorboards, and Matt’s cancer worsens. When everyone starts seeing weird things, they take action. They don’t move out, though, don’t be ludicrous. This is a movie with the word ‘haunting’ in the title. They’re gonna stare the evil right in the face and say “do your worst, you big nasty ghost!” So instead of getting real help (their kid has cancer, but hell, he’ll live, right?) they call a cancerous Priest called Popescu to exorcise the evil. What he actually does is get rid of the only thing keeping the evil at bay. That in mind, I was expecting unholy CG rage the likes of which would shatter my imagination. What I got was Wendy being attacked by her shower curtain. Then they figure out there are bodies in the wall and Matt tries to burn the house down. Ok, that’s the plot, sure, now let’s talk about the ways in which this film falls flat on its face, shall we? Cause that’s really the fun of this movie.

This is based on supposedly true events and dig a little and you’ll see that the people who investigated it are the husband and wife team who looked into the Amityville haunting, which was also fake. So it makes sense that The Haunting In Connecticut is a haunted house movie that seems so keenly aware that it is a haunted house film. All the genre conventions are here (I mean…like….all of them) and Peter Cornwall makes sure you catch everyone of them, going so far as to repeat a few seconds of the scene over and over again. We have a dysfunctional family, angry ghosts that the protagonists misunderstand the intentions of, a false happy ending, one member of the cast psychically linked to the ghosts and exhibiting the behavior of someone long dead, manifestations in private places (shower, bedroom, etc.), little kids being scared, a priest with shaken faith trying to solve problems to the dismay of at least one person, an attitude of disbelief at first, medical procedures causing problems, a last-minute race to put an end to something, strong religious motif, a scene where they ‘consult the books’, and bodies hidden behind walls. All the stuff our metaphorical waiter was eating in the preface happen to be scenes and plot devices stolen from The Exorcist, Legend of Hell House, The Others, The Haunting, The Amityville Horror, The Ring, The Grudge, Kwaidan, The Shining, and The Beyond. Kind of sad, but at the same time, fun.
What a film made of other films means that whenever it isn’t ripping off elements that worked in other films that by definition won’t work here, Haunting In Connecticut is a fucking hoot. The film is a total scream because the writers couldn’t come up with anything that made sense to fill the spaces between the stuff they were stealing from. Which means we have all sorts of loose ends and ridiculousness like that business with Wendy, the relative with no relations. There’s the scene where Peter exhibits his drunkenness, perhaps the most confusing and comical portrayal of a drunk ever written. The first clue we get is when Peter asks Sara why she lied about the house being a funeral home. Peter says “we can’t build a foundation on lies” and Sara comes out and says “Well that was when you were a drunk and a liar.” He just sort of takes that one, doesn’t really react or anything... Good characterization! Which screenwriting book did that come from? Next time we see him, he’s reminiscing (we’re lead to believe) about the memories of his son. Then out of the blue he’s standing in an apartment we’ve never seen before holding an electric guitar. He tries playing but gets so sad that he smashes the guitar into the little amplifier he’s got and the open beer sitting on top of it and starts crying. It’s a little like those montages in Will Ferrell movies where he’ll show you a few ordinary clichés and then end on something left-field. It’s hysterical. Then he comes home drunk one night; we know he’s drunk because he drives through the fence in the yard. Sara instinctively gathers everyone in her bedroom and they huddle together like it’s a fucking air raid. Peter comes in complaining about the lights being on, of all things. He goes around breaking lights, raving about paying the mortgage and then breaks the door into the bedroom, smashes a lamp and then serenely exits the room. That…actually didn’t seem all that bad. He always break affordable appliances when he gets trashed? Peter’s actions do not justify the family’s reaction at all. Then things just go on business as usual, haunting and all that. The film pauses to become a lifetime original movie for a minute and a half and then returns to its regularly scheduled programming. There’s also the really perplexing bit where Peter sells his antique trust and then blames it on his cancerous kid and his doctor. Peter spends a lot of time just being bitter that his son’s ruining his financial status with his incessant terminal illness. I’m starting to think drinking isn’t this guy’s problem.

And as for Matt, first of all the kid wears a gnomish grimace on his face even when he smiles. Second of all he becomes this terrifying jerkoff halfway through the film and he doesn’t get why his little brother or whoever that kid is, is scared of him. He jokes “be good or you’ll have to deal with me.” But he’s legit the scariest teenaged big brother you’ve ever seen in a movie. He broods and throws things and pushes people and doesn’t apologize or explain himself. Then the film has the all-important library montage which of course has every possible recorded fact about the case of the guy who owned the house and made it haunted. He’s in Matt’s flashbacks, so, yeah…in the library, right. They show pictures of ectoplasm, which don’t get me wrong, would have looked cool if they hadn’t put it on every piece of advertising related to this atrocity. They ruined their only trick. Which means all the film has that’s scary are a few Evil Dead type blink-and-miss-its. They work, but your film needs more than a few of those. I wished they had gone with one of the digressions where they mention that Ectoplasm was reported coming out of lower extremities. So someone had ectoplasm come out of their ass? If Matt had pissed or shit ectoplasm instead of finding corpses in the dining room, I’d be singing this film’s praises right now. Oh and speaking of corpses; the film’s zinger moment concerns bodies piled up like cordwood in the dining room. Nobody smelled that? Even the woman behind me who brought her infant to a horror film called a foul on that one.

Let’s talk cribbing for a minute, shall we? First, I’d like to just point something out to Cornwall, everyone on the planet Earth has seen the image from The Shining where the axe breaks through the door near Shelly Duvall’s face. Did you think you were gonna do it better, Cornwall? Did you really...? We have creepy kids and a malevolent switcheroo a la The Ring. We have pictures of dead bodies and a sepia-toned séance like The Others. We have writing on a pale body like Hoichi from Kwaidan (bet you didn’t think anyone’d catch that, did ya?) and we have some thoroughly Fulcian zombie behavior. First of all it takes place on the sight of some nasty spiritual murders, like Schweik’s in The Beyond. Then we have some sick looking muddy zombies that show up to menace slowly, just like in The Beyond. An admirable choice for a film that didn’t have hopes higher than being an Amityville Horror knock-off. The introduction of Elias Koteas as the cancerous priest is like…sweet music. You knew from the second he arrives toting bags of his own urine around in the Cancer ward that he was going to be the fact-spewing priest who would overcome his illness to do good and that’s exactly who he is and what he does. They even give him a ridiculous fishing hat so when he appears at the end they can paraphrase The Exorcist. I love Elias Koteas and seeing him in this shit is demeaning for both of us; he just isn’t Max Von Sydow and he just can't save a film like this, just as Virginia Madsen isn’t Ellen Burstyn, especially considering she’s being directed to act like Julianne Moore. Oh, hey, does anyone remember The Prophecy? That had Virginia Madsen and Elias Koteas too. Except that film knew that it wasn’t any good and they both walked away with a little more dignity. And you know what else, people actually die in that movie. No one, not even no-last-name Wendy, dies. How much more family-values, 700 club could you get? Add to this the fact that in my screening some guy tripped and fell on his way to the concession stand midway through the film and you have 90 minutes of high hilarity. Seriously, bring your friends and some popcorn and just laugh it up.

Also, I’ve known for awhile that anything with vaguely Christian themes to it will get greenlit in Hollywood, but the writers out and admit that believing in God and believing in Magic are the same thing. Whoops! Elias Koteas’ priest character calls a bunch of the shit going on in the house magic and then combats with a cross, and it doesn’t work. He says the word ‘magic’ and no one bats an eye in a film where everyone prays before eating. Well, hell alright! And as the final kicker, after the haunting is over, after what may be the biggest anti-climax since Amityville Horror, an inter-title tells us that Matt’s cancer went away. The bearded comic book fan sat in front of me rightly snorted and said “so that’s how you cure Cancer!” We all knew, every man, woman, and child, knew that this was the biggest bunch of bullshit. So not only is Alcoholism nothing but a harmless, go nowhere character and tension builder, Cancer is cured by burning your house down and believing in magic. Line Drawn!

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