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An American Haunting (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 20

An American Haunting

An American Haunting


Starring Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Hurd-Wood, James D’Arcy, Matthew Marsh, Thom Fell, Sam Alexander, Gaye Brown, Zoe Thorne, Miquel Brown, Shawna Shim, Lila Bata-Walsh and Howard Rosenstein.

Screenplay by Courtney Solomon.

Directed by Courtney Solomon.

Distributed by After Dark Films.  84 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

An American Haunting is the story of the Bell Witch case in Tennessee in the early 1800s, one of the most famous hauntings in US history — to call it a ghost story would be inaccurate, this family was bedeviled by a poltergeist.  The story became so notorious, as the film points out even before the opening credits, because it is the only time in history that this kind of phenomena led to the death of one of the haunted.

This story is legendary, and films have been made about it before — in fact two times in just the last two years with Bell Witch Haunting in 2004 and Bell Witch: The Movie in 2005.  Most people, myself included, have never seen those two tiny indie productions, though, so An American Haunting is really not in competition with those.

The story is about a family named the Bells.  The family patriarch John Bell (Donald Sutherland) was found guilty of usury against a local woman who was rumored to be a witch.  When the woman does not get what she considers fair reimbursement, she puts a curse on him and his young daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and mysterious events start happening in their house, escalating in violence and horror until the entire family is terrorized.  Bell’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and son (Thom Fell) are mostly unscathed, but still are horrified witnesses to the brutality in the farmhouse.  A local preacher (Matthew Marsh) and schoolteacher (James D’Arcy) also try to help the clan to make sense of the mysterious goings on.

The casting here is impeccable — you don’t expect to find Academy Award caliber actors like Sutherland and Spacek in horror movies and their presence gives the more predictable sections a gravity that lesser actors could not pull off.  Also impressive are the young stars — both Hurd-Wood and D’Arcy have a wonderful feel for period drama, as also evidenced in their past roles — Hurd-Wood played Wendy in the recent remake of Peter Pan, D’Arcy was in Master and Commander.

It is kind of nice to find a supernatural story that doesn’t make up its own rules of haunting like recent attempts like The Grudge and Dark Water.  Every once in a while An American Haunting falls into the traps of modern horror — a few too many layered dream sequences, a few too many fast cuts, a few too many red herring scares.  However, An American Haunting knows how poltergeists behave (and what they don’t do) and is not going to throw the kitchen sink in just because it may be scary.

Even the ending — which is a bit out of character with the rest of the film — does come from a knowledge of the supernatural and the case, and has long been considered one of the possible solutions for this unsolved mystery.  (Granted, it is probably one of the more sensational possibilities…)  This conclusion does have the unfortunate side effect of making some of the things which happened earlier in the film make less sense plotwise than it would have seemed before this theory was offered, but the whole point of a story of haunting is that it couldn’t possibly seem sensible.

However, the final deciding factor for any horror story is simply this — did it give you the chills and make you jump in your seat?  In that matter, An American Haunting is a complete success.  (5/06)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2006  All rights reserved. Posted: April 27, 2006.


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