The Haunting in Connecticut is a letdown in two ways. The first and more expected of the two is that the film, marketed squarely in the horror genre, is not horrific at all. On the contrary, like a birthday party magician, we’ve seen all its tricks before, usually in older, better movies. We’ll get to those tricks later. Second, the plainness of the movie lowers the esteem of its young director, an Aussie named Peter Cornwell.
Long ago, Cornwell worked as a sound recordist for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In his spare time, he created claymation shorts. Claymation is a portmanteau word for an animation technique whereby clay figurines are positioned, photographed, slightly repositioned, photographed, slightly repositioned, photographed again, on and on until the filmmaker collapses from exhaustion. Projecting the images in rapid sequence (24 frames per second) creates the illusion of fluid movement. Claymation films have a distinctive look—think Chicken Run or Wallace and Gromit. If you’ve ever seen a film reel, you know all movies are nothing more than a series of quick photographs, but with stop-motion, the frame-by-frame adjustments means there’s nothing quick about it.
Cornwell spent years, yes, years painstakingly crafting his 15-minute film Ward 13, about a patient trying to escape an evil hospital. It was worth it. Ward 13 is funny, smartly written, expertly paced, riffs on and subverts cinematic conventions, smashes genres together, and holds your attention from start to exhilarating finish. In short, the short is amazing.
Flash-forward to today, after Cornwell rode his wave of success across the Pacific to Los Angeles, to his American live-action feature debut, The Haunting in Connecticut. The film is about a teenager, riddled with cancer, whose family relocates to a house close to his treatment clinic. The house was formerly a mortuary and the home of a powerful séance. It’s easy to see why Cornwell took on the project—the premise plays into his sensibilities.
Cornwell borrows his scare tactics from the classics, which worked well in Ward 13, a pseudo-horror film never meant to scare anyone, but falls dead in Haunting. The film’s ghosts are first glimpsed in mirrors—a favourite of Orson Welles. Then they are glimpsed in flashes of light—see The Exorcist (1973). Other touches include a beauty taking a shower, a flock of birds, doors slamming shut and approaching footsteps—all covered by Alfred Hitchcock, father of pop horror, in Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Rear Window (1954).
But there is a third grievance, beyond the mediocrity and the director, though related to them. Ask yourself this. Where is Connecticut? Could you find it on a map? Is it a city or a state? Don’t feel too stupid. You’re not supposed to know. Why should any of us be expected to know that Connecticut is a coastline New England state below New York in northeastern America? This is the preposterous state of affairs in which we find ourselves, being force-fed useless arcana about the United States because our media diet is so narrow.
America does not make higher-quality movies than anywhere else—French, German and Italian films, for instance, are just as well-acted and well-directed. America does not make more profitable movies than anywhere else—many of its big studios are in debt. America does not even make more movies than anywhere else—that honour goes to India. Yet where are all the Brazilian, Nigerian and Indian movies? Exhibited nowhere, distributed by no one in Jamaica. We are stuck, for the time being, with The Haunting in Connecticut.