'An American Haunting': 'True story' told in unconvincing fashion
Filmed in Canada and Romania – the latter country passing for the early 19th-century rural American South – Courtney Solomon's disappointing An American Haunting, a “true story” about a series of ghostly apparitions, fails to make good use of its intriguing premise. Collectively known as the Bell Witch, the apparitions scare the wits out of the genteel Bell family of Red River, Tennessee, with particular emphasis on the Bells' adolescent daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood).
Initially, small noises are heard around their farm. These are followed by several creepy sights: a black wolf with yellow eyes; a strange figure that is seen at night; and a silent, dark girl who continually tries to approach Bell. As time passes, the Poltergeist-like attacks become louder and more violent – with the unlucky Betsy as their most viciously abused victim.
Schoolteacher Richard Powell (James D'Arcy) is called in to help, but neither his scientific knowledge nor his infatuation with the much younger Betsy can prevent the apparitions from returning and wreak even worse havoc. Despite repeated attempts to communicate with the ghostly presence(s), the Bells are told only that one of them will be killed.
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. John's submissive wife, Lucy (Sissy Spacek), is also concerned for their safety, but there's little she can do.
Eventually, little pieces start falling into place to reveal who is behind the apparitions – and why.
'An American Haunting': Technical proficiency not enough to compensate for weak screenplay
This haunted house – or rather, haunted estate – film offers the usual spooky moments (in large part accomplished by way of loud sound effects), eerie cinematography (courtesy of the late Adrian Biddle), some competent acting (courtesy of Sissy Spacek, the only American in the cast due to financing restrictions imposed by the film's British-Canadian backers), and several effective directorial touches by Courtney Solomon – including a masterfully directed and edited (by Richard Comeau) horse-carriage crash.
On the downside, An American Haunting is irreparably marred by a superfluous – and quite silly – wrap-around modern-day story that is supposed to mirror the Bells' “curse,” and by Solomon's unfocused screenplay (adapted from a novel by Brent Monahan). Although the writer-director strives to add some real drama to the Halloween proceedings, he spends considerably more time copying shocking scenes from The Exorcist than creating real characters with compelling interpersonal issues.
The final plot revelation comes too late to inject An American Haunting with the sort of psychological undercurrent that propelled to a higher cinematic realm both Jack Clayton's The Innocents and Robert Wise's The Haunting.
By the way, the Bell Witch apparitions were 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.”
An American Haunting was reviewed at the AFI FEST 2005.
An American Haunting (2006).
Dir.: Courtney Solomon.
Scr.: Courtney Solomon. From Brent Monahan's book.
Cast: Donald Sutherland. Sissy Spacek. James D'Arcy. Rachel Hurd-Wood. Matthew Marsh. Thom Fell. Zoe Thorne.
An American Haunting cast info via the IMDb.
Donald Sutherland and Rachel Hurd-Wood An American Haunting trailer and image: Allan Zeman Productions / Freestyle Releasing.