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The Haunting in Connecticut (PG-13) **

In this film still image released by Lionsgate Films, Virginia Madsen is shown in "The Haunting in Connecticut." Photo: AP.
In this film still image released by Lionsgate Films, Virginia Madsen is shown in "The Haunting in Connecticut." Photo: AP.

By Colin Covert, McClatchy News Service

When was the last time you were truly scared by a horror movie? Not startled by loud noises and shock cuts, not grossed out by gore, but bound and gagged by fear?

A superior chiller like The Mist or Let theRight One In can take your imagination hostage with compelling characters, ominous pacing and the suggestion of things unseen. The Haunting in Connecticut operates like someone leaning in behind you and yelling. At first it makes you jump. The 200th time it’s just annoying.

The (allegedly true) story concerns a family that makes that classic real estate mistake, moving into a former mortuary. Teenage cancer patient Matt Campbell (Kyle Gallner) needs to be near the clinic where he’s receiving experimental treatment, so mom and dad (Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan) purchase an old dark Victorian.

When Matt experiences visions of a ghostly tormented boy, his parents consider it a side effect of his medication. A terminally ill priest (Elias Koteas) offers another suggestion: Being near death confers the ability to see spooks. As the family gropes for answers, poltergeists by the dozen attack the new tenants, and the Campbells discover that their house’s history is nastier than they could’ve imagined.

The script is as creaky as the house, clogged with unnecessary characters and here’s-what’s-happening talk. Madsen, a formidable actress, wrings as much variety as she can from a role that’s nonstop suffering. Donovan, an arthouse matinee idol a decade ago, underplays so furiously that he could be mistaken for one of those life-size promotional standees in theater lobbies. The acting prize goes to Gallner (of TV’s Smallville) who captures his sickly character’s physical discomfort and alienation.

Director Peter Cornwell, making his feature debut, labors to create a distinctive personality for the film with disconcerting montages of funeral photographs and morbid recreations of long-ago seances. Haunting does add a couple of fearsome images to the fright film catalog. If you’ve ever wondered what a keepsake box full of severed eyelids would look like, here’s your answer.

At times, however, Cornwell’s effects get the better of him. A Psycho-inspired scene involving a haunted shower curtain inspires laughter, and ectoplasm issuing from spirit mediums’ mouths looks like regurgitated bedsheets.

Too often the movie goes for the easiest, cheesiest scares, the old have-stuff-jump-out and-scare-you-with-loud-noises approach. It elicits a response, but it’s as meaningless as the involuntary kick you give when the doctor hits your knee with a rubber mallet.

Director: Peter Cornwell.

Cast: Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan, Kyle Gallner, Elias Koteas.

A Gold Circle Films and Lionsgate release. Running time: 92 minutes. Some intense sequences of terror and disturbing images. Playing at area theaters.