In The Haunting in Connecticut, we find an example of a phenomenon that I'd expect to be at least a bit more widespread than is the case: it is a motion picture in which nearly every individual element is either tremendously good or completely horrible, with virtually nothing left hanging in the middle ground of straight-up mediocrity. So even though it's probably easiest to call it an average horror film, it is a horror film in which very little could honestly be called "average".

The allegedly true story (I'll get back to that) concerns the events witnessed by the Campbell family in 1987, in - not to spoil anything - suburban Connecticut. Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) and her recovering alcoholic husband Peter (Martin Campbell) are running out of money and mental stamina as they try to deal with the apparently incurable cancer which has afflicted their son Matt (Kyle Gallner). Sara is particularly tired of the eight-hour drive to bring Matt to the one clinic in the area dabbling in an experimental treatment that is her son's only hope for survival, and so she proposes, despite the family's financial troubles, renting a home nearby for the duration of his illness. Luckily for the Campbells, a big old house that meets all of their needs just happens to be available for a giveaway price. Unluckily for the Campbells, the low cost is entirely a function of the house's history as a funeral parlor and séance site, and there's a certain ghostly something living in the basement - the same basement that Matt is compelled to make his bedroom - that appears to have an urgent desire for the living family to move back out.

So, to start, here's what's good about the film: first off, director Peter Cornwell, though he is no revolutionary genius, knows exactly where to set the camera and exactly how to move it for maximum scariness. In most movies of this type - that is, PG-13 ghost stories that are largely meant to provide a few tepid thrills for teenage girls - when a mysterious Shape appears in one place, only to disappear a few seconds later, this is achieved through a series of shock cuts. Cornwell, bless him, would much rather use a really long pan or tracking shot to move off of the Whatever It Is for a few seconds, and then slowly drift back, to reveal that it's gone (or the opposite: now there's nothing, now there's a decomposing hand). I'm certain that this doesn't sound like very much, but it gives The Haunting in Connecticut a distinct stateliness, if I may use the word, a smoothness to its scares that doesn't rely so exclusively on the punctuation that cuts provide. By "punctuation", I mean that thing that happens when a! Cut! Slams! At! The! Audience! Like! This! It's trite and wildly ineffective, and I am quite impressed by Cornwell's willingness to break out of that mold for virtually the entire running time. It also helps that the scary images he's showing - largely rotted or burned flesh, and faces with the eyelids cut off - are genuinely creepy without being hugely gross, creepy always being the best that a horror film can aim for.

Still in the net positives, Gallner's performance as the cancer-stricken Matt is nothing shy of amazing. Anyone who watched Veronica Mars in its heyday knows that Gallner (who played "Beaver" Casablancas on that much-lamented series) s an exceptionally gifted young actor; his take on this role is, to say the least, more than it deserves. Matt spends a great deal of his time in the film convinced that the nightmare visions he's seeing are nothing but the side-effects of his treatment, and the real horror for him is not that he will be taken over by dead things, but that if he says what he's seen, then he'll be taken off the meds, all but assuring his death. In other words, the thrust of the role is that he's terrified not by the paranormal things that might kill him, but by the very physical disease that assuredly will kill him. Gallner's performance is accordingly not based in the fear of ghosts and ghouls but in the soul-dead weariness that comes from having your body ravaged, day in and out, by the very drugs that are ostensibly saving your life. I don't deny that I may have some personal reasons for finding this performance especially effective; but then, it is never my contention that we should remove personal responses from art criticism. At any rate, Gallner is quite possibly the most convincing young cancer sufferer I have ever seen onscreen.

And then, there are bad things. To begin with, no matter how good Cornwell is as a visual director, he allowed Robert J. Kral, composer of the film's score, to run horribly amok. It's not the case that The Haunting in Connecticut has the most absurdly overwrought "it's scary because the musical stings are telling you its scary" soundtrack in recent years, although it's very much the case that the score has the most deleterious effect on the film, relative to how well everything else is working, of any horror movie I've seen since I started reviewing the damn things. This isn't just a weak score because it is clichéd; it actively damages the parts of the film that would otherwise be scary, by telegraphing them too much.

As for the screenplay, Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe (between them responsible for both the first Carnosaur and the first Revenge of the Nerds) are not nearly as gifted in their field as Cornwell is in his own. The Haunting in Connecticut isn't exceptionally rotten, but there are far too many gaps in the story for comfort, places where characters only act in a certain way because the story demands it, obvious questions that don't get asked and stupid mistakes that are only made to keep the story rolling forward. Besides that, the film is structurally muddled: for at least the first half, it acts like we're supposed to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Matt really is hallucinating all of this; unfortunately, there are just enough manifestations where he isn't around (plus, y'know, the word "haunting" is in the title) to prevent this narrative strand from ever picking up any momentum as aught but a fake conflict to, once again, keep the story rolling forward.

As for the alleged "true story"; in the mid-to-late-'80s, there was a story told by Al and Carmen Snedeker about the haunted house they moved into, and the horrible things that happened to them as a result; but other than ghosts and Connecticut, there's precious damn little tying one story to the other (and, much like Amitville's George and Kathleen Lutz, there's every reason to be believe that the Snedekers were wilfully stuffing ten pounds of Technicolor bullshit into a five pound bag). So all that's left is yet another almost entirely fictional story about rotted spectres and the sub-Exorcist exorcism that frees them. Admittedly, The Haunting in Connecticut plays its finale differently than most of these films do; that's at least somewhat worthy of very measured praise.

Back I come to the beginning: a little bit of tremendously good, a lot of tremendously stupid, and only a few things in the middle (Virginia Madsen's uninspired performance, over-reliance on convenient blackouts). Compared to most modern horror films, especially the PG-13 ones, there's an unexpected treasure trove here. But that's simply not enough to recommend the film to anyone but the die-hard genre fans who would see it already. It's just another crappy horror film, made by a director with far more talent than a crappy horror film requires.