Nothing gets me more hyped up than when a “based on true events” title card appears at the start of a horror movie, so when those words graced the screen at the beginning of The Haunting in Connecticut, I had a slight adrenaline rush. I watched the film for the first time this past weekend during a horror movie marathon with friends, and it was the first title on our watch list. I would later learn that it was wise to watch this one first since it was surprisingly boring for a horror movie “based on true events.”
In the film, the Campbell family moves into a home to be closer to the hospital where their teenage son, Matthew (Kyle Gallner), is receiving cancer treatment in the form of a clinical trial. They soon discover that the home was once a funeral home, so surprise, surprise, the house is totally haunted. Matthew is the first member of the family to witness supernatural occurrences in the home, but his family thinks it’s a side effect of the clinical trial. They are all eventually forced to face the reality that Matthew is in his right mind.
The Haunting in Connecticut is based on the Snedeker family’s supernatural experiences in home in Southington, Connecticut. The Snedekers really did move into a house that was previously a funeral home run by morticians who were, supposedly, also necromancers. Necromancers in Connecticut, imagine that! The idea of necromancy occurring in a small, all-American town is absolutely terrifying, but the film doesn’t really get into the necromancy aspect of the story all that much, which is completely bonkers to me. This is what makes the story so unique! Now don’t get me wrong, there are some creepy moments that are necromancy related (e.g., box of human eyelids is discovered under an attic floorboard), but there’s just not enough to make the film worthwhile. Instead, it follows the basic haunted house story line: family moves into house with a dark past, one of the family members starts to see ghosts while the rest of the family thinks they’re crazy, the haunting gets more intense as time goes by, and it all comes to a close in a fast-paced, extravagant ending.
There’s really nothing that special about The Haunting in Connecticut. It’s doomed to be lost in the realm of average, not-so-great haunted house movies like The Conjuring and An American Haunting.
Even in its title the recent campus comedy Dear White People promises to be a sort of intellectual provocation, one that conjures up conversations about contemporary black culture, the ways systemic racism is masked in modern social exchanges, and the current state of identity politics in three simple words. By addressing white people as a social group in a playfully aggressive tone from a black perspective, the movie elicits an intentionally uncomfortable, satiric hyperbole. This is backed up as soon as the “Prologue” segment promises a full-on “race riot” at their film’s conclusion and continues through the disembodied, Warriors-style radio voice of actress Tessa Thompson making blanket statements like “Dear white people, dating a black person to piss off your parents is still an act of racism,” and “Dear white people, stop dancing.” The film even smartly, preemptively responds to the question “How would you feel if I made a Dear Black People?” directly, because it was more than apparent that someone was going to be dumb enough to ask it.
Still, Dear White People subverts what you’d expect from a satiric comedy about modern racial identity & culture clash. It never settles for knee-slapping, go-for-the-jugular jokes at characters’ expenses, but instead strives to achieve a surprising amount of empathy across a wide range of diverse featured personalities, each stretched so thin by social & academic pressure that they seem to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adopting the format of a university campus comedy (one that improbably splits the aesthetic difference between Spike Lee & Wes Anderson), the film allows itself a lot of breathing room for representing an extensive collection of young characters struggling with questions of self-identity. Personal crises of finding a social group where they “belong”, desperately searching for online celebrity, navigating expressions of sexuality, suffering the tightrope of insecurities in code-switching, and sometimes generally provoking chaos due to a youthful, anarchic spirit all weigh heavily on the minds of the film’s collection of stressed out college students. In a lot of ways it’s these acts of soul-searching are more memorable than any of the film’s provocative, laugh out loud humor.
Due to its nature as a provocation, Dear White People really does paint an uncomfortable picture of modern race relations, one that ranges from representations of more subtle transgressions as touching strangers’ hair without consent & comedy writers hiding racist/sexist sentiments under the guise of satire to the more outright horrifying example of blackface being used as a theme for campus parties. And just in case you’re skeptical that things really are as bad as that last example, the film includes several actual, real-life headlines about those parties in its end credits. Provocative or not, Dear White People is playful & nuanced in its humor in a way that I’m sure must’ve inspired some great post-screening lobby talk during its theater run. Still, I suspect what will stick with me most about the movie is the emotional stress of its overachieving college student protagonists straining to find their place in the world & peace within themselves.
Side Note: Snuck in there among other members of the excellent cast is a small-scale Veronica Mars reunion in Tessa Thompson (who played Jackie Cook) & Kyle Gallner (who played Cassidy “Beaver” Cassablancas). Probably far from the most important thing about this movie, but it caught my attention at least.