Directed by: Courtney Solomon
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Hurd-Wood, James D'Arcy
Oh, dear, another "based on a true story" horror opus -- and this one claims extra legitimacy because it's based on "the only case in U.S. history where a spirit caused the death of a man." Well, fair enough, but it's equally worth noting that the case was tried in a rural Tennessee court in 1817 -- something about as suggestive of hard fact as the evidence at the Salem witch trials. What the movie is not is very compelling.
The central problem with the narrative -- which has been cobbled together from the story of the "Bell Witch," a quasi-demonic possession in old Tennessee -- is that writer-director Courtney Solomon (Dungeons and Dragons) can't decide what kind of movie he's making. On the one hand, it's a reasonably serious ghost story, and it might have succeeded on that level. Certainly, it has the cast to pull it off. But on the other hand, it tries to play to the teen shock-effect crowd. The two approaches don't really mix, and, worse, An American Haunting is obviously too lacking in the budget department to pull off its more grandiose attempts at full-throttle horror. This results in several of the movie's key moments coming across as funny rather than chilling.
Unfortunately, the problems start almost as soon as the "possession" takes hold and young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood, Peter Pan) gets hoisted by her flowing tresses and bitch-slapped by the demon (memo to demons: keep your pimp-hand strong). Things hardly improve when the film resorts to repetitious flare-ups of candles and fireplaces, and reach maximum amusement when a Bible rips itself apart page by page in a scene that looks like an exploding Xerox machine.
The only terror sequence that more or less works is a one where the demon pursues a coach that's trying to escape with Betsy inside. Unfortunately, this is also a scene that makes no sense in the larger context of the film -- nor does the fact that the demon has to make a frenzied Evil Dead-cam search of the house to determine that Betsy is even gone, but then knows precisely how to find her. Other things are just silly -- including a jaw-dropping bit where Betsy and a ghost have a playful water-splashing fight in a cave that has to be seen to be believed. (Someone thought this was creepy?)
None of this would matter a damn if the movie was utterly worthless. It'd be nothing more than a period-piece variant of The Exorcism of Emily Rose (blessedly, minus the courtroom tedium). However, there's an interesting film buried in all the lame "Boo!" attempts -- a pretty well-developed mystery that puts forth a more psychological explanation to the haunting, one that explores the consequences of child molestation. It addresses issues of both self-directed and outwardly-directed rage, employing a sophistication that is doubly surprising in the context of the overall film. Unfortunately, there's the overall film to contend with and that's just asking too much. Rated PG-13 for intense terror sequences and thematic material.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke