An American Haunting

Director: Courtney Solomon
Screenplay: Courtney Solomon (based on the book The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan)
Stars: Donald Sutherland (John Bell), Sissy Spacek (Lucy Bell), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Betsy Bell), James D'Arcy (Richard Powell), Matthew Marsh (James Johnston), Thom Fell (John Jr.), Sam Alexander (Joshua Gardner), Zoe Thorne (Theny Thorne), Gaye Brown (Kate Batts)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2006
Country: U.S.
An American Haunting
An American HauntingAn American Haunting is based on the supposed real-life case of a poltergeist that terrorized a Tennessee frontier family for four years in the early 1800s. There were scores of eyewitnesses to the so-called "Bell Witch," future President Andrew Jackson supposedly checked it out personally, and the eventual death of one family member was certified by the state of Tennessee as having been caused by the spirit.

Courtney Solomon's film version is based on Brent Monahan's book The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, which retells the story from a first-person perspective as if long-lost diary pages had been found and also theorizes a psychological explanation for the spiritual manifestation. Solomon takes Monahan's central ideas and uses them to structure his film in the present tense, with a modern-day mother (Kathleen Quinlan), whose daughter is suffering from nightmares, reading from an old letter that tells the first-person account of the Bell Witch. In theory, this should work, but it doesn't largely because Solomon doesn't develop the modern-day framework well enough to make it not feel intrusive when he cuts back periodically from the story proper, usually just to show the mother reading.

The story of the Bell Witch is told by Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), the wife of John Bell (Donald Sutherland). They live on a plantation in rural Tennessee, and their family is apparently cursed after John takes advantage of one of his workers by charging her too much interest. Soon thereafter, they begin seeing and hearing strange things, and their teenage daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), is attacked nightly by an unseen force that likes to pull her hair and slap her around. Even the local schoolmaster, Richard Powell (James D'Arcy), who is by his nature a skeptic, is quickly convinced that there is something supernatural going on.

The performances are all solid and convincing (Sutherland and Spacek lend the production an air of respectability it might not have had without them), and from a technical standpoint, An American Haunting is exceedingly well done. Although you wouldn't know it from his debut six years ago, 2000's dreadful Dungeons & Dragons, Courtney Solomon has a good feeling for how to build up a sense of dread and then explode it into full-fledged terror, which is heightened by elaborate surround-sound effects and a punishing score by first-timer Caine Davidson.

Solomon exploits basic human fears of the unseen, which seem all the more intense within the story's historical setting; the primitive nature of life in 1818, with its candles and heavy wooden doors, increases the sense of futility against a powerful, invisible entity that seems to be everywhere at once. The cinematography by Adrian Biddle (Aliens, V for Vendetta) effectively suggests claustrophobic darkness and makes everyday locations, from a schoolhouse yard to the inside of a church, seem strangely otherworldly.

Solomon does deploy some stock tricks that have been ruthlessly overused in recent years following the popular explosion of J-horror and its American remakes, especially the ghostly appearance of a "creepy little girl." Also, while the scenes in which Betsy is attacked are frequently terrifying, they also belie the film's primary weakness, which is Solomon's reliance on mind-numbing repetition. Although he has some great ideas, they are limited, and we are therefore treated to repeats of the same basic scenario over and over again until the effect becomes tedious.

These attacks are crucial, however, as they focus attention on Betsy and force the question of why she is the primary victim. A viewer can't be faulted for immediately thinking of The Exorcist (1973) and its similar treatment of the supernatural punishment of a young girl on the verge of sexual maturity. Yet, as the film's final scenes makes clear, Solomon is up to something different, using this well-trodden historical ghost story as an allegory for a heinous sin that transcends time and links together past and present in an ugly circle of emotional trauma.

Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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