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Spooks fall short in ‘Haunting in Connecticut’

Strong cast grapples with diluted PG-13 horror story that relies too much on the same old “quietquietquietLOUD” effect to get jolts.

Calling your movie “The Haunting in Connecticut” is pretty much asking for it; heck, call it “Casablanca in Tennessee” while you’re at it. Robert Wise’s 1963 “The Haunting” is generally considered to be the scariest haunted-house movie ever made, while this new one … won’t be.

While the talented Adam Simon — whose work spans everything from the cleverly labyrinthine horror movie “Brain Dead” to the fascinating Samuel Fuller doc “The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera” — has a co-writing credit, he and everything else about “Connecticut” are hampered by the PG-13 rating. Since no one wants to (or can) make a quietly creepy chiller along the lines of the Wise classic, and since only R-rated movies get to show explicit violence and gore, today’s PG-13 scary movies rely on the same old quietquietquietLOUD effect to get jolts.

That gimmickry is particularly disappointing here, since Simon and co-writer Tim Metcalfe have created an interesting backstory to this particular haunted house, including desecrated corpses, spiritualism and a truly disturbing dumbwaiter. (“The Haunting in Connecticut” purports to be based on true incidents, but after the “Amityville Horror” people confessed their story was pure hokum, I’m not believing anyone.)

The story focuses on Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) and her son Matt (Kyle Gallner), a teenager undergoing debilitating radiation and chemotherapy treatments for cancer. To avoid having to drive the sick boy to a hospital many hours away, Sara rents a nearby house and moves in the whole family. She finds out that the reason it’s so cheap is that it used to be a funeral home, but she doesn’t share this information right away.

Matt takes a room in the cellar, just outside a mysterious locked chamber, and he immediately begins seeing shadowy figures, blood and maggots that disappear as quickly as they arrive, plates that move by themselves and all manner of I’m-in-a-haunted-house kinds of stuff. He’ll get taken off his experimental treatment program if he has hallucinations, so he keeps his visions to himself.

Ultimately, he shares his story with fellow patient Rev. Popescu (Elias Koteas), and the clergyman tells him that since he is hovering near death, he’s more likely to see the spirits of the departed than those who are strong and full of life. They come to understand that the house was the setting for ghoulish séances featuring a young medium named Jonah (Erik J. Berg), and that Jonah is still in the house. Along with some other dead people who aren’t particularly happy about how they were treated in the mortuary.

I wish “Haunting” had trusted its plot and its dank visuals — which are often extraordinary — instead of relying on cheap thrills of the cat-jumps-out-of-the-closet variety. Such shabby “boo!” moments take away from the strength of the cast: Madsen, Koteas and Martin Donovan (as Matt’s father) are all acting the hell out of this material, and Gallner — who made an impression on me in last year’s little-seen “Red” — also makes an impact.

I was particularly taken with Berg, who has almost no dialogue, but who expresses volumes through his eyes and facial expressions; he could have been huge in silent cinema, but hopefully there’s a place for him in talkies as well. (It’s Berg, incidentally, who you see on the posters with the weird driftwood-like blob thing coming out of his mouth.)

Besides the lazy frights, the movie’s other big miscalculation is in its depiction of the dying as conduits to the afterlife. It sounds good on paper, but do you really want to spend 92 minutes watching a teenager, already weakened by cancer treatments, get harrassed by angry ghosts? “The Haunting in Connecticut” is ghoulish, all right, but not necessarily in the way that the filmmakers intended.