[26 March 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“It’s all around us all the time,” says Reverend Popescu (Elias Koteas). He means the restless dead, the phenomenon of souls trapped on earth, stuck inside corpses that have been improperly treated. Though most people remain unaware, he and people like him have different experiences. Who are those people? Cancer patients, in particular cancer patients receiving “treatments” from a sinister-seeming doctor in Connecticut. Speaking to fellow patient Matt (Kyle Gallner), Popescu explains, “We take a much more roundabout path, we spend more time in the borderland.” Who knew?
In The Haunting in Connecticut (not to be confused with the TV movie, A Haunting in Connecticut), Matt is having an especially hard time with the dead. Living with his family in a creaky Victorian that also happens to be a former funeral parlor and séance site, he’s surrounded by dark shadows, ooky male choruses, and reflections of tortured corpses in dirty glass. Even as he’s beset by visions and nightmares, he’s advised that his treatments can cause hallucinations and that admitting same can make him ineligible for further treatments. This will upset his mother, Sara (Virginia Madsen), and so he’s disinclined to tell. Instead, he suffers mightily and mostly alone, upset at the specters he sees, including lots of dead bodies in various states of gruesome disarray, as well as a weird boy being abused by a sinister old-timey man (with spectacles and a sepia-toned suit).
Mom only notices that Matt is going through the more usual strains of radiation and chemo, vomiting and sweating and grimacing in pain. She’s certainly not aware of the ghosts, and even when she begins to believe they exist, can’t see them. (“You’re strong, you’re healthy,” elucidates the ever instructive Popescu, “You shouldn’t see anything”). She also doesn’t know the burden she’s bestowed on her son, in her desperate hope that he’ll survive. But you see that Matt feels pressure to be stoic and survive whenever she prays fervently that he won’t die, or that he feels physical pain when she hugs him, pressing up against his radiation-burned flesh (the field is not precisely defined, but the red covers his neck and upper chest). “Love hurts,” he jokes after he groans at her touch, but Sara is so anguished that she cannot grant him even that bit of gallows humor: instead, she rushes from the room, refusing even to discuss his own complicated feelings about dying (much less about those odious dead people he sees).
The film makes clear enough Sara’s own burdens, including her unspoken guilt over deciding to rent the haunted house to begin with: despite knowing its history, she makes this Very Bad Decision in a moment of panic, as Matt is writhing in agony during the long drive from their previous home to the treatment center. Unlike Matt, Sara’s suffering is mostly silent, if rather passive-aggressive. She’s righteously mad at her husband, Peter (Martin Donovan), a recovering alcoholic who goes off the wagon just when his sobriety is most crucial; understandably frustrated by her little niece and nephew, who are apparently addicted to playing hide and seek in the haunted house, a most inappropriate environment for such activity; and not a bit suspicious of her son’s strangely inattentive doctor (D.W. Brown).
No matter her own fears (or because of them), Sara encourages Matt not to report his seeming hallucinations. This leaves him to struggle with the particulars on his own—whether he’s abusing his young cousins or lurking in doorways, his burns turned into boils and his eyes sunk deep into his skull. Thank goodness his sister Wendy (Amanda Crew) not only believes his stories about ghosts but also takes it on herself to do some research on the house in order to figure out his visions (when he wonders how she’ll do this, she looks at him sternly and makes the film’s single, oh-so-welcome joke: “Don’t tell anyone, but there are these buildings all over the country where secret knowledge is kept. They’re called… libraries!”).
Her investigation leads to one of those explain-it-all montages, as she tells the story of the house, the ghosts, and the weird boy ghost, Jonah (Erik J. Berg). Seems he was a rather keen medium, exploited by the man who ran the funeral home, Aickman (John Bluethner), who ran séances for profit. Aickman “amplified” the séances—thus getting Jonah to spew digitized “ectoplasm” from his mouth—by carving words into corpses’ flesh, or, more precisely, by carving whole paragraphs of sinister nonsense that ran up and down their limbs and torsos, filled their cheeks and the backs of their hands. The ghosts now appear to Matt all carved up, not to mention pissed off. When Matt and Wendy ask Popescu what this is about, he calls it “necromancy, corpse bothering,” an apt phrase if ever there was one.
Popescu repeatedly provides a helpful gloss on the goings-on, noting, for instance, that the house is more possessed than haunted or that Matt should be allowed to make some decisions on his own regarding his life and death. As he and Matt share unspoken understandings of the borderland, not to mention some macabre cadaverous makeup, the poorly paced and ineptly edited Haunting tends to leave the regular living people behind. They exist, after all, with the rest of us, in the mundane realm where corpses are for the most part unbothering.