(Lionsgate) Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Elias Koteas, Martin Donovan, Amanda Crew, Sophi Knight, Ty Wood, Erik Berg, John Bluethner. Directed by Peter Cornwell
The line between our world and the next is said to be gossamer-thin. There are those who walk that line between our worlds – the sick, the dying, the sensitive. These people can be hyper-aware of things the rest of us cannot know.
The Campbells are a family in crisis. Teenaged Matt (Gallner) is battling a rare form of cancer and is losing that battle. His frequent treatments require long drives into Connecticut, a drive that is excruciating for Matt and his mother Sara (Madsen). The illness has drained the finances of the family considerably, but Sara’s husband Peter (Donovan) has worked hard to overcome his alcohol addiction and is bringing in substantial work as a contractor. Still, the family (including the younger children Mary (Knight) and Billy (Wood) as well as their cousin Wendy (Crew) who has been recruited to help watch the smaller kids) are completely focused on Matt and the decision is made to find a place to live closer to where Matt is receiving his treatments.
The problem is finding something affordable in a particularly affluent part of Connecticut and Sara despairs of ever doing so, until she finds a place that seems perfect at first blush. It’s large enough to accommodate them all, reasonably close to Matt’s doctors and best of all it’s in their price range. The house is older and in need of repairs in some places but otherwise it seems perfect.
The family moves in and Matt is drawn to the basement. It’s cooler down there and has its own bathroom (so that the other kids don’t have to hear Matt vomiting), and there’s a mysterious set of locked doors and frosted windows. Things settle in to a semblance of normalcy, or at least as normal as things can get for a family with a critically ill child.
Then Matt starts seeing things. People who aren’t there, horrible visions of corpses being desecrated, those kinds of things. He’s reluctant to tell his family about them; the radical treatment he’s on is known to cause serious hallucinations as a side-effect and could be the basis of him being denied this treatment.
Then others in the family begin experiencing bizarre things as well. It turns out that the house they moved into was once a funeral home, but not only a funeral home – one in which séances were performed by a gifted young medium named Jonah (Berg) at the direction of the funeral home’s undertaker Ramsey Aickman (Bluethner). It becomes clear that there is something very wrong going on in the house, something beyond our experience. Matt turns to Reverend Popescu (Koteas), who is also receiving the same treatment Matt is and is more sympathetic than Matt’s parents but what does the malevolent force that resides in his house want with Matt?
This is loosely based on an incident that allegedly took place in the late 1980s in Southington, Connecticut and was the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary which is what caught the filmmakers’ attention originally. There has been some controversy about the validity of the claims of the family that became the Campbells in this story, but that’s neither here nor there.
What we’re more interested in is whether this is a good movie or not and surprisingly, it is. The filmmakers use Matt’s illness as an underlying thread far more horrifying in many ways than the spectres and spookies that pop out throughout the movie. The main complain I’ve heard leveled at the film is that there are too many instances of startle scares, scenes where something leaps out at you suddenly with an orchestral screech designed to make you leap out of your seat. A little of that goes a long way, and there are things forever jumping out at the Campbells that by the end of the film it gets to be old hat.
The relationship between Matt and Sara is what works best. Madsen is a capable actress and turns in one of the finest performances of her career here as a mother fiercely determined to see her son better, terrified that he will never be and willing to do anything to ease his suffering. Once in awhile, you can see some of the stress peeking through, as you might in any mother trying her damndest to hold it together in front of the kids.
Gallner and Koteas also turn in fine performances making the suffering of their characters believable. Koteas is a bit grim and kooky but Gallner is a kid coping with something no kid should have to cope with, and he’s the centerpiece here, not a horror hero in the traditional sense but one nonetheless.
Horror fans will be pleased to know that there is plenty of gruesome spectacles as well as some pretty nicely orchestrated scares. The backstory is impeccably logical and consistent, a problem with some supernatural horror movies.
I expected a cheesy B-Movie and instead was rewarded with a surprisingly effective, pleasantly well-acted horror movie that while not a classic was certainly worth my time. I particularly liked the cancer background theme; that seemed very authentic and made the story much more compelling, particularly in the relationship between mother and son. Even the furies of Hell can’t match a pissed off mom protecting her sick kid.
WHY RENT THIS: The scares are very effective and the shocks very visceral. Horror fans will get their fill. The underlying story of Matt’s illness is genuinely affecting, and the effects of his condition on the family make for a compelling subplot.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the plot points are a bit cliché, particularly where they deviate from the original story. The father’s alcoholism was an unnecessary subplot that either should have been explored much further or ignored entirely.
FAMILY VALUES: Some scenes of mutilation and mayhem not for the squeamish. Some extremely nasty scares and nightmare-inducing visuals will make this strictly off-limits for the very young.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Contraversial paranormal investigators Ed and Leslie Warren, who also investigated the Amityville Horror, were the investigators on the case that this is based on.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature on post-mortem photography, as well as a re-examination of the original haunting.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: Day Three of the Six Days of Darkness