Never play hide-and-seek in a haunted house. Isn't that one of those motherisms handed down at the same time as "Look both ways before crossing the street" and "Don't swim after eating"?
But kids will be kids, especially in the movies. And even though the house looks vaguely Amityville-ish, a "Let's sneak into the old morgue" moment or two turns up in The Haunting in Connecticut, an Amityville Horror variation "based on the true story."
In 1987, a struggling extended family is dealing with one member's cancer. Matt (Kyle Gallner) is the teenage son knocking on death's door. Only an experimental program at a hospital across state lines gives him any hope. But Mom (Virginia Madsen) won't put him through those long road trips. She rents a big house, a former mortuary, that she gets a deal on. Dad (Martin Donovan) is still in the doghouse over his drinking days, so it's her call.
What does Matt do when he tours the ancient funeral home? He moves his mattress to the basement. When you're close to death, you know no fear. But that thesis gets a serious workout from the get-go as the boy begins to hallucinate: He sees dead people. It's as if he's a participant in the séances he sees these dead folk carrying out.
Nobody but Matt sees the apparitions. So when the other kids (Amanda Crew plays a cousin they've taken in) move in, they don't know anything's wrong. Matt is sick and getting sicker. His treatment, which will end if he tells the doctors he is seeing things, is making him see things, or so everybody believes.
If you've seen any of the Amity ville Horror movies, you know the arc of the story. Nobody believes in ghosts but one guy. There's a holy man (Elias Koteas) who senses the evil in the house but whose warnings might not be enough. Then one bang-up night all hell breaks loose.
These movies live and die on their "gotcha" moments, and Haunting has a few dandies — a dark presence glimpsed in a mirror or in flashes of light in total darkness. Director Peter Cornwell did the creepy clay-animated Ward 13 short that was a film-festival favorite in 2004. It is glimpsed, on TV, in this 1987-set thriller. The writers, "true story" or not, were plainly recycling Amityville story structure. So credit editor Tom Elkins with the scares that work.
And the cast. As with The Last House on the Left, this latest film fright sinks or swims with the actors. Gallner makes a very convincing boy about to die; Madsen is his properly stricken mom; and Donovan, an under-used leading man, plays the stressed, guilt-ridden dad well.
The title is The Haunting in Connecticut, not The Stabbing or Hatcheting or Butchering With a Machete, so it won't appeal to the hard-core gore crowd. But it has plenty of creep-you-out potential for kids just discovering big-screen horror. For grown-ups, here's another reason to hunt and hunt for an honest real estate agent before making that big decision about where to live.