- An American Haunting (movie 2005) review: Screenwriter, director, and co-producer Courtney Solomon’s Anglo-Canadian-U.S. indie tells a purportedly real-life-inspired ghost story in cliched horror flick fashion.
An American Haunting (movie 2005) review: Featuring veterans Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, purported ‘true ghost story’ is told in conventional and unconvincing fashion
Based on Brent Monahan’s 1997 novel The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, itself inspired by the purported ghostly apparitions that scared the wits out of the Bell family of Red River, Tennessee, in the early 1800s, Courtney Solomon’s indie horror movie An American Haunting fails to fully exploit its intriguing premise.
This haunted house – or rather, haunted estate – drama features the customary spooky moments, in large part achieved by way of raucous sound effects; eerie cinematography, courtesy of the late Adrian Biddle (Thelma & Louise, V for Vendetta); some competent acting, courtesy of Best Actress Oscar winner Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980), the only American in the cast due to financing restrictions imposed by the film’s British and Canadian backers; and several effective touches by screenwriter, director, and co-producer Courtney Solomon, among them a masterfully handled and edited (by Richard Comeau) horse-carriage crash.
On the downside, An American Haunting is irreparably marred by a superfluous – and preposterous – wrap-around modern-day story that is supposed to mirror the Bells’ “curse,” and by Solomon’s unfocused screenplay. Although the filmmaker strives to add some authentic drama to the Halloween proceedings, he spends considerably more time copying “shocking” scenes from The Exorcist than creating well-rounded characters with compelling interpersonal issues.
The Bell Witch collective
Filmed in Canada and Romania – the latter country passing for the early 19th-century rural American South – An American Haunting kicks off in earnest as small noises are heard around the Bell family farm.
These are followed by several creepy sights: A black wolf with yellow eyes; a strange figure seen at night; a dark, silent girl. As time passes, the Poltergeist-like apparitions – collectively known as the Bell Witch – become louder and more violent, with the Bells’ adolescent daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) as their favorite victim.
Handsome schoolteacher Richard Powell (James D’Arcy) is called in to help, but neither his scientific knowledge nor his infatuation with Betsy can prevent the apparitions from returning and wreak even worse havoc.
It’s no surprise when the Bells are told that one of them is about to die.
Ruling patriarch John Bell (Donald Sutherland) believes the ghosts are the result of a curse inflicted upon the family by a woman with whom he had had a land dispute. His submissive wife, Lucy (Sissy Spacek), is at a loss as to what to do.
Eventually, little pieces start falling into place to reveal who/what is behind the apparitions – and why.
Unfortunately, this final revelation comes too late – and feels a tad too lazy – to inject An American Haunting with the sort of psychological undercurrent that propelled to a higher cinematic realm Jack Clayton’s The Innocents and Robert Wise’s The Haunting.
An American Haunting (movie 2005) cast & crew
Director: Courtney Solomon.
Screenplay: Courtney Solomon.
From Brent Monahan’s 1997 novel The Bell Witch: An American Haunting.
Cast: Donald Sutherland. Sissy Spacek. James D’Arcy. Rachel Hurd-Wood. Matthew Marsh. Thom Fell. Zoe Thorne.
“An American Haunting (Movie 2005): By-the-Book ‘Real-Life’ Ghost Tale” notes
 The Bell Witch apparitions were supposedly recorded between 1817 and 1821. According to An American Haunting’s production notes, they were “validated by the State of Tennessee as the only case in U.S. history where a spirit or entity caused the death of a human being.”
But is that so?
In Grady Hendrix’s Slate.com March 2006 article “Little Ghost on the Prairie: An American Haunting is definitely not based on a true story,” the author affirms:
As for the movie’s claim that the story is “… validated by the State of Tennessee as the only case […],” I assume they’re talking about the record of John Bell’s death, and that is inarguable. Yes, John Bell did die. So did pretty much everyone else who was born in 1750. He was also a human male. Beyond that, the State of Tennessee is silent.
Female-focused British horror
Rachel Hurd-Wood An American Haunting movie poster image: Allan Zeman Productions | Freestyle Releasing.
“An American Haunting (Movie 2005): By-the-Book ‘Real-Life’ Ghost Tale” last updated in April 2023.