Review of A Haunting In Salem by Isaac Thorne
The best horror movies about hauntings are always founded in a grain of truth. Regardless of whether the haunting itself was ever real, the legends that spring up around a given person, place, or thing seemingly manage to keep viewers spellbound and entertained no matter how many ways or times they’re told. How many times have we seen documentaries about The Winchester House, for example? Or the true story on which William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist? Once we’ve heard these tales, we are made hungry by them. The “Based on True Events” taglines add habit-forming seasoning to the mix. We crave more. Lamentable though it may be, this is how Hollywood rakes in millions yet tells us the same stories over and over.
It is very much this palate to which A Haunting In Salem (2011, The Asylum) attempts to appeal. Directed by Shane Van Dyke, this film begins with the Salem, Mass., sheriff arriving home one night to discover that his family has been slaughtered. Instead of calling his deputies, the coroner, or even an ambulance, the sheriff grabs a gas can and sets about trying to light the house and bodies ablaze. He is stopped when he is mysteriously thrown from an upper floor window and falls to his death.
Sometime later, a war veteran accepts the job of being the new sheriff of Salem. Sheriff Wayne Downs (Bill Oberst Jr., Criminal Minds) arrives with his wife Carrie (Courtney Abbiati), daughter Alli (Jenna Stone), and son Kyle (Nicholas Harsin) in tow. They are introduced to the house in which the previous sheriff and his family died along with groundskeeper McSwain by Salem’s mayor and a jittery aide. McSwain, who “isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed,” according to the mayor, accidentally lets it slip in front of the new family that the place has some history. Naturally, as soon as the mayor and his aide leave, strange things start to happen.
The grain of truth on which this film is based happens to be the curse of Giles Corey, who was a Salem Village farmer in the 1600s. His wife, Martha, was accused of witchcraft. At first, Giles Corey apparently believed the accusations against his wife. However, then Corey himself was charged. He became obstinate and refused to participate in the trials. Eventually, Corey died as a result of the torture that was intended to force his participation. The person responsible for torturing Corey (and others during the witch trials) was Salem Sheriff George Corwin. During Corey’s torture by Corwin, the farmer reportedly shouted “Damn you! I curse you and Salem!”
Four years later, Sheriff Corwin died of a heart attack at the age of 30. The curse on Salem’s sheriffs is alleged to have continued throughout the following years, with each new sheriff dying of a heart-related condition. However, the curse is believed to have been broken in 1991 when the Salem Sheriff’s Office was moved to a new location.
A Haunting in Salem changes the details of the legend a bit: each sheriff dies of natural causes in the same home instead of operating from the same office. In addition, it is not one spirit, but all 19 victims of the witch trials-era sheriff who haunt the location and seek vengeance. It is perhaps these changes that make the film feel more like a reimagining of The Amityville Horror and American Horror Story: Murder House than an original attempt to bring a legend from history to life on-screen. Even the name of the film, which recalls A Haunting in Connecticut in addition to the A Haunting cable television series, immediately indicates to the viewer the formula it will follow.
The actors perform impressively. Oberst is interesting to watch, although he stands out a bit from the rest of the family in terms of casting. Perhaps we are supposed to believe his weary and aged appearance compared to the others is a result of his military experience, but I didn’t buy it. I think his character would have been more believable as the grandfather of the two teens, not their father. The effects are decent as well, although they are used mostly to deploy predictable jump scares. The sound also comes off well in most respects. However, there is a baseball bat beating at one point in the film that comes off flat both visually and in sound.
The formula, however, is this film’s greatest flaw. We’ve seen the “weird things are happening in the house and everyone thinks the father is going crazy” story time and again. Moreover, we’ve seen it told in much more spectacular and interesting fashion (The Shining, for example). The framework—the bones, if you will–of a good haunted house story is present in A Haunting in Salem, but we’re not provided with enough fresh meat and seasoning to make us salivate for it.