What makes Haunting in Connecticut a different ghost story

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Peter Cornwell, who makes his feature-directing debut with the upcoming horror film The Haunting in Connecticut, told SCI FI Wire that his film has more layers than the average haunted house flick.

Virginia Madsen stars as a mother who's just moved with her family, including an ailing teenage son (Kyle Gallner), into a home that was previously a funeral parlor. When spirits start to make their presence felt, the family turns to a dying priest (Elias Koteas) for help.

SCI FI Wire spoke exclusively to Cornwell, the Australian director of the short film Ward 13, by telephone last week. Following are edited excepts from our interview. The Haunting in Connecticut opens today.

What did you see in the material that made it the right choice for you to do as your feature directing debut?

Cornwell: Well, I felt that it had a real heart to it, while being really scary and having a lot of original elements to it that we've never seen before.

"Never seen before" is a relative term, as haunted-house movies aren't new for a lot of people, especially this movie's target audience. So what did you do to give the film an air of freshness?

Cornwell: Actually, when you think about it, there haven't been that many haunted-house films, particularly good ones. It didn't take me long to work my way through the stack of them. People looking at ours will say it's like The Amityville Horror. But a haunted-house movie has to have certain things. It's like in a romantic comedy, boy has to meet girl. In a murder mystery, there has to be a murder at the start. It's not a cliche to have a murder at the start of a murder mystery. That's the genre, right?

Given that, I think our story is extremely different. A lot of haunted-house films, the reason things happen is the house was built on an Indian burial ground or some such. In our movie, it used to be a funeral home, and there's a creepy embalming room downstairs where some pretty bizarre stuff went on. So there are more layers to the mystery of what's happening in the house.

What did your actors bring to the table for you?

Cornwell: When you're doing a film like this, you really want the world to feel real, so then the ghosts will feel real. Having great actors like Virginia and Elias and Martin Donovan and Kyle, they're all just fantastic in the film. I think, on some level, they don't really act. They're actually going through an experience. [And it feels more real], you connect to the characters. Plus, it's not just the creepy story, but also there's a family drama going on in the house. I think that's what attracted actors of such quality, that they had more to put their teeth into.

It's your first feature-length film as a director. How'd the shoot go?

Cornwell: It went really well, yeah. I used to be a sound recorder years ago, so I'd spent a lot of time on set. This time, I could make a bigger contribution. I'm at the center of it instead of just being a guy on the set. That's not for ego reasons. I just really like movies, and it's great to be able to create the kind of movie I want to see.