Thursday, April 28, 2011

#265. An American Haunting (2005)

Directed By: Courtney Solomon

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Hurd-Ward

Tag line: "Possession Knows No Bounds"

Trivia:  The film is based on the actual legend of the "Bell Witch", a ghost that future U.S. President Andrew Jackson supposedly had a run-in with during his days as a soldier.

One of the more famous ghosts stories in the annals of American history is that of the “Bell Witch” of Tennessee, a malevolent spirit that supposedly tormented a frontier family between the years of 1817 and 1821. According to period documents and eyewitness accounts, this particular spirit was quite powerful; so powerful, in fact, that it allegedly caused the death of that family's patriarch, one of the few times on record where a ghostly encounter led to a fatality. An American Haunting is writer/director Courtney Solomon's attempt to bring this classic tale of horror to the big screen. Unfortunately, the key word here is “attempt”, and while Solomon obviously did his homework when it came to recreating the time period, An American Haunting relies far too heavily on tired clichés, and in the end amounts to little more than your typical supernatural fare.

It's the early 19th century. Wealthy landowner John Bell (Donald Sutherland) lives in a small Tennessee community with his wife, Lucy (Sissy Spacek), and their children. Following a church hearing to settle a land dispute, neighbor Kathe Batts (Gaye Brown), who John Bell had cheated out of profits that were rightfully hers, places a curse on both Bell and his beloved daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Though the lady Batts is rumored to be a practicing witch, the Bells ignore her threats, and return home with little concern. But when Betsy is attacked during the night by an unseen entity, the Bells ask their close friend James Johnston (Matthew Marsh), as well as Betsy's schoolteacher, Mr. Richard Powell (James D'Arcy), for assistance. The two of them prove just as helpless against the intruding demon as the Bells, and over time, the attacks on Betsy intensify.

An American Haunting is certainly a beautiful film to look at, with lush scenery and an impressive recreation of early 19th century America. But this isn't a period drama; it's a horror movie, and no amount of spectacle will distract you from this film's total lack of imagination in the fright department. Many of the now-standard techniques are here for the taking: the shadow that moves quickly out of frame, the “ghost in the mirror” jump scare, doors slamming, windows exploding, and bodies contorting. I'm the first to admit that supernatural films usually get the best of me, but there wasn't a single moment in An American Haunting that caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. Not one. I've seen it all before, and what's more, I've seen it done much better.

Throw in a ridiculous “reveal” at the end and two pointless modern-day sequences, and you have a film that doesn't just falls flat on its face!


forestaken said...

I am so glad to hear someone else feel this way. People I talked to around here who recommended that I watch this movie talked about how scary it was! The only thing enjoyable was the molestation twist at the end for me because the rest of it was ridiculous. Do you happen to know what the real history is behind what happened? The movie made me lose any interest in looking it up.

Dave Becker said...

forestaken: Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment.

I think one of the more disappointing aspects of the film is how it transformed what was a pretty interesting story into a formulaic one. There's a brief history of the Bell Witch on Wikipedia (, and from this alone you can see it's a story that had potential. Unfortunately, the film fails to capture it.

Thanks again!