An American Haunting

on May 05, 2006 by Christine James
Slowly draining the life out of a victim may be a popular theme with the "Saw" set, but not when the injured party in question is the storyline. "An American Haunting" utterly stultifies the thrilling Bell Witch legend on which the film is based; the most disturbing ghost here is the wraith of opportunity lost.

The setting is Red River, Tennessee, circa 1818. Rachel Hurd-Ward ("Peter Pan") is Betsy Bell, a picture-perfect blushes-and-ringlets girl whose burgeoning womanhood has been duly noted by her would-be suitors. Her solemn father, John (Donald Sutherland, looking striking with his flowing gray locks but employing some kind of silly cornpone accent), is not happy about his daughter's innocent flirtations, but soon that's the least of his worries. An angry neighbor gets revenge on John for a deal gone sour by putting a curse on the Bell family, and in short order an unseen poltergeist begins taking out its wrath on Betsy.

A fictionalized account of actual documented phenomena (reportedly even including U.S. President Andrew Jackson among eyewitnesses), Brent Monahan's novel "The Bell Witch," from which "An American Haunting" was adapted, builds tension in describing an entity that starts out wild and animalistic but soon gains alarming intelligence, as its disembodied voice begins singing hymns, quoting scripture and communicating with frightening articulation and acuity, ratcheting up the psychological torment. In the film, all that's scrapped for endless cuts to doors creaking open, candles flickering, the occasional "Exorcism of Emily Rose" visual rip-off, and some hair-pulling and slapping that, while true to the source, probably shouldn't have been accompanied by biff-bam comic-book sound effects. Writer-director Courtney Solomon pulls punches with the twist ending, and the semi-nebulousness makes it that much more of a stretch to go along with. Half-baked modern-day bookends add insult to injury. Starring Rachel Hurd-Ward, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek and James D'Arcy. Directed and written by Courtney Solomon. Produced by Courtney Solomon, Christopher Milburn and Andre Rouleau. A Freestyle release. Supernatural thriller. Rated PG-13 for intense terror sequences and thematic material. Running time: 82 min

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