Bigger on plot than fright, Haunting succeeds in transitioning from initial boo-scare tactics to genuinely ghastly storytelling, but it’s no 1408.
The year is 1987. Sara Campbell (Virginia Madsen) would do anything for her son, Kyle (Matt Campbell), including moving into a rental property that’s closer to the hospital where Kyle is being treated for cancer. Because of the experimental nature of the treatment he’s receiving, Kyle initially dismisses shadowy visions he sees at the house as some kind of side effect, but it isn’t long before the entire family starts to realize that there was something unfriendly residing in the house long before they moved in.
Most of these “haunting” films follow a formula; clues to the story are dropped in with a few boo-scares and over-loud music cues, research begins in earnest as the victims decide to go proactive as to the cause of the haunting, and finally there’s a resolution that fits the clues followed by a lot of not-always-scary special effects. Many filmmakers also seem to have trouble keeping their ghosts fixed in any one location to actually haunt a house, as if haunting a mere house were too confining (Beetljuice, anyone?) Haunting, however, makes the best use of its premise by adhering to the formula instead of trying break it and answering the age-old question: if you already know what’s in there, why would you ever go back in?
One Missed Call, The Eye, and The Messengers all recently used this formula, which isn’t strictly reserved for haunted houses even though each incorporated a haunted location used by the ghost or specter. Even the sci-fi horror Event Horizon was essentially a haunted house in space and stuck to these rules more closely than most. As haunted house films go, however, 1408 takes the most recent prize for not only adhering to the concept but thinking outside the box while still trapped “inside the box.” This haunting (in Connecticut) is more akin to The Messengers than 1408, so it’s still above par comparatively.
Haunting also milks the “based on a true story” bit, including an opening scene intended to make what came after seem more important but reeks of studio input; it’s almost insulting to see Virginia Madsen seated for an interview and claiming truth to all the fiction while a clack board reads the name of the film. If the studio wanted to really sell this overused ploy, they would have had the real woman seated there instead of the actress playing her. The score, fortunately, contributes to the film’s atmosphere, working with the scenery of the old home (by American terms) to create an appropriate amount of dread. While the lovely Ms. Madsen is always enjoyable to watch, the story is the real star power in this film, giving the mostly-unknown cast the opportunity to sell the story rather than call attention to themselves.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)