Loosely based on a book by Brent Monahan that purportedly told of the only recorded case in U.S. history of a spirit causing the death of a human being, "An American Haunting" starts off as a threadbare and obvious ghost story; promptly becomes repetitive and monotonous as the same basic scene is repeated over and over; eventually borders on incomprehensible as all sense of editorial cohesion flies out the window, and finally ends on an exasperatingly anticlimactic note that seals the disastrous deal. To watch "An American Haunting" is not to be frightened, but to be dispirited at the level of grade-A acting talent wasted on this D-grade drivel. Were award-winning class acts Donald Sutherland (2003's "Cold Mountain
") and Sissy Spacek (2005's "North Country
") coerced into appearing, brainwashed into thinking this was a project worth getting involved in, or simply uninformed as to how royally screwed they would be under the scattered directing helm of Courtney Solomon (2000's "Dungeons & Dragons
")? Whatever the case, it takes everything they've got not to embarrass themselves in what could only be generously described as a cross between a particularly tacky Disney flick, a laughably shallow retread of "The Exorcist" and "The Exorcism of Emily Rose
," and an amateurish dinner theater production of "The Crucible."
In a wraparound sequence as tacked-on as it is pointless, a mother in present-day Tennessee becomes alarmed after her budding teenage daughter is terrorized at home by an unseen being. To the worried mom's rescue comes a journal that she quaintly discovers in the attic, almost two centuries old but describing events exceedingly familiar to her own. Turning back the clock to 1818, the Bell familydishonest land owner John (Donald Sutherland), faithful wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) and young teenage daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood)are suddenly menaced in their home by invisible beings and violent apparitions shortly following accusations that John has been raising the interest price on people's land for his personal gain. As the family struggles to make sense of the goings on and Betsy becomes the spirit's main target for torture, John's guilt over his past mistakes and helplessness to protect his daughter leads him toward madness.
Making a film inspired by the Bell Witch legend would seem to look good on paper, but writer-director Courtney Solomon substantially botches the results. Every scene in "An American Haunting" plays itself out in the exact same fashion. Noises or creaks are heard in the house. Characters walk around looking concerned with a burning candle in hand. The suspense music escalates, then cuts off. Silence takes over for approximately five seconds, followed by a loud bang or crash on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, in her bedroom, Betsy is dragged around by her hair and relentlessly slapped by an unglimpsed presence. End of scene, and repeat. And repeat again. And again. A constantly shaky camera zooming around rooms in disarray right before a cheap jump scare is far from what makes a horror film durable and effective, and director Courtney Solomon is at a loss for how to create and sustain tension and one's involvement in the story. The film wears out its welcome very quickly due to a glaring lack of development in the areas of plot and character, and that's even with an already skimpy running time of 84 minutes (including credits).
Certain shots have a sophisticated, sleek look courtesy of cinematographer Adrian Biddle (2004's "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason
"), but otherwise the low budget gives itself away and proves a distraction. The special effects are cheesy, particularly the hazy, clichéd visualizations of the spirit and a brazen CGI thunderstorm, and the production scope is so limited that its settings look more fitting for a spoof rather than a legitimate period piece. The cornball early scenes of the townspeople celebrating, underscored by music so rooted in flowers and sunshine that it ends up being unintentionally funny, ultimately doesn't last long as the hauntings start up. Correction: the cornball dialogue stays put, but the score switches to a piercing instrumental full of generic stings and not much else.
As if "An American Haunting" wasn't already tedious enough, the final act introduces a plot twist so misguided and calamitously handled that it turns an already unsatisfactory thriller into a patently awful one. It comes straight out of left field without warning or any setup, creating more than a few plot holes in the process. Not only is this development an outrageous cheat and condescending to the viewer, but the way director Courtney Solomon portrays it is somehow cowardly, vague and sensationalistic all at once. The final scenes, returning to the present-day mother/daughter storyline, are senseless and beyond idiotic, reaching a conclusion likely to please no one, but sure to make quite a few audience members angry and frustrated. Solomon's general intentions may have been an attempt at a metaphor for one girl's sexual awakening, but by not developing this (or the character of Betsy) in the slightest, his aims never rise above the puerile.
Horridly edited in such a way that the only respite for repetition is pure confusion and no continuity from one moment to the next, "An American Haunting" boggles the mind with how many things it gets wrong. Callow only when it's not strictly empty-headed, the picture's cookie-cutter treatment and inadequacy to rile up a single fleeting scare warrants a comparison to one of 2005's best movies, "The Exorcism of Emily Rose
." In its story of a teenager possessed by a demon, the film was thought-provoking, textured with real ideas, and absolutely brilliant in creating an atmosphere so unsettling and thick with dread that it threatened to suffocate the viewer. "An American Haunting" flounders dreadfully at all of these things, despite the thankless efforts of Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek and, as Betsy, Rachel Hurd-Wood (2003's "Peter Pan
"). In other words, this limp ghost tale is as artificial and spooky as a plain white sheet thrown over a trick-or-treater's head.