EXCL: The Haunting in Connecticut’s Peter Cornwell

The director on his feature debut

For his directorial feature debut The Haunting in Connecticut, director Peter Cornwell wanted to contribute to a sub-genre not often explored. “There really aren’t that many haunted house films,” the Australian helmer says, talking to ShockTillYouDrop.com via phone from Austin, Texas where his horror opus made its SXSW festival premiere last week. “What’s interesting to me is this is based on a real place. The house is a character in the film. There are two different haunted house films. There’s the one where you have a family living in the house and gradually stuff happens. Then there’s the other kind where you’ve got a notorious house with investigators coming in or get locked in there. What can be more dangerous than your own home? What’s supposed to be safe? I think it taps into ‘There’s nowhere safe they can be.'”

Cornwell found his way to Connecticut through the animated film he accomplished Ward 13, a 14-minute trip through the surreal when a man wakes up in a hospital with his face covered in bandages. As he attempts to find out why he’s there he learns the hospital’s staff is up to warped experiments. Its technical execution and blend of action, horror and comedy made Ward 13 a festival hit garnering Cornwell plenty of attention.

“It was animation but [producers] could see I could do live-action,” Cornwell says. “People forget that it’s animated almost. One thing led to another and I ended up reading the ‘Haunting’ script at Gold Circle and I got on the film.”

Written by Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe, and based on a true story, Connecticut finds Virginia Madsen (Candyman), Martin Donovan (The Alphabet Killer) and Kyle Gallner (Jennifer’s Body) playing the Campbells, a family that moves into a former funeral home. Once settled, they begin to experience peculiar occurrences tied to the abode’s dark past. “There are slight touches of Amityville Horror but other than that, it’s completely different,” Cornwell clarifies for those finding parallels to the hauntings that took place on Amityville, Long Island and in Southington, Connecticut. “With a haunted house film there are certain things that have to happen, apart from that it’s really incredibly original and kind of strange. Different things happen. The background of why the house is haunted – there are more layers to it, more mysteries to it. More than ‘it’s on an Indian burial ground.’ It’s the fear of the unknown until the very end of the movie.”

This approach would make The Haunting director Robert Wise proud. In fact, if Cornwell had to choose a favorite haunted house film it would be Wise’s ’63 exercise in unnerving subtlety. “You never see anything, he sets an incredible mood and it’s a phenomenal piece of filmmaking. In your own brain, you’re creating something. It’s never on the screen. With a slasher film you’ve got the guy with the knife and he has to jump into frame. Because this is supernatural, anything can happen so you have more ways of surprising the audience. I thought what we had was very different in terms of creating scares.”

Cornwell says he tried to make Connecticut as gritty and real as he could, relying on his cast to bring an emotional weight to the material. “The secret of acting is not to really act. You kind of make yourself feel something…actually feel it. When you look at The Shining and Shelley Duvall is in the house and [Jack is] smashing the door with the axe what makes it scary is how terrified she looks.” Sound design was also detrimental to the experience. “In this kind of film, you can’t cut to the ghost. You’re in the perspective of the characters and you feel like you’re really in this environment. You’ve got an off-screen threat that comes through the design. It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to be too slammed over the head of it. It can change the whole experience.”

The soft-spoken type, Cornwell does a great job dancing around spoilers regarding the film’s big scares. He does, however, hint to scenes involving an “embalming room,” a finale that required careful planning and three cameras, and the “ectoplasm” which has become the focus of distributor Lionsgate’s ad campaign. “In the ’30s – I think it was partly in response to World War I – so many people had dead sons and family members, they just had this huge collective will to talk to the dead. They had séances that were really popular and there are these really bizarre photos. Regarding authenticity and what really happened is a different question,” he laughs. “They’re really disturbing. It’s amazing this happened then and no one really put this in the movie before. This isn’t the ectoplasm of Ghostbusters, this is what they thought it was back then.”

Asked if he enjoyed the live-action process or if he’d prefer to go back to animation, Cornwell answers with a bit of relief, “It was great shooting more than four seconds a day.” No doubt, but you’re working with flesh and blood actors, too. “You don’t have to worry, ‘Should I make the actors blink now or should I wait another ten frames?’ What’s great about actors is they’re going to bring their own thing to it. It’s funny, actors will come up with things that are quite differently than how I imagined it. If I was animating it, it’d be quite different. But that’s fantastic, in animation you have all day to think about the shot. In live-action you can cut or do take two.” propeller

Cornwell is circling a number of projects at the time of this writing but he says it’s too early to start talking about them. The Haunting in Connecticut opens on March 27th.

Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor


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