An American Haunting

An American Haunting


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Red River, Tennessee, 1818. Something unnatural is occurring in the household of respectable community leader John Bell (Donald Sutherland). Strange noises are heard in the attic, a sinister wolf prowls outside, a spectral woman in white appears and then the attacks begin on John's only daughter, the adolescent Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Night after night she is viciously beaten by invisible hands, dragged screaming across the bedroom floor and suspended in midair.

John's wife Lucy (Sissie Spacek) is distraught, the interventions of the Reverend James Johnston (Matthew Marsh) have no effect and even the young schoolteacher Richard Powell (James D'Arcy) abandons his search for a rational explanation. Soon the strange presence in the house assumes multiple voices and pronounces a death sentence on John. Believing that the affliction of his family stems from a grudge long held by their neighbour Kate Batts (Gaye Brown), John decides to pay her a visit and ask her to lift her witch's curse - but the real reason for the haunting of the Bells lies much closer to home...

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In its closing credits, Courtney Solomon's An American Haunting claims to be "based on true events" and, indeed, there really was a Tennessee family named Bell whose members were tormented by mysterious phenomena over a period of four years in the early 19th century; but the weight of documented history on this film is as nothing compared to the influence of other cinema, from The Exorcist to Poltergeist via The Crucible and Sleepy Hollow.

So flagrantly derivative are its set-pieces that it is a struggle to find anything original in the film at all. Yet, much like last year's Dead Birds, by setting its spooky actions for the most part in America's distant part, it slyly insinuates its chronological priority over the very films it so slavishly imitates, as though it were the mother source from which all America's "later" horrors, both real and imagined, flow, rather than the other way round. And by casting Sutherland and Spacek, luminaries from an earlier generation of horror films (Don't Look Now, Carrie), in the roles of the Bell patriarch and matriarch, the film acquires a venerable pedigree for itself, even if only through the back door.

Cinematographer Adrian Biddle uses his camera to suggest the presence of an intrusive eye, sweeping and circling through the Bells' colonial mansion with an ever-watchful menace, and reflecting through its endless mobility the mood of agitated hysteria within. Unfortunately, Solomon's direction is set at a similarly shrill pitch, opting for extravagance and over-explicitness (especially in the final third, with its excess of expositional flashbacks), where a much more understated suggestiveness might better have served.

Anyone paying merely a modicum of attention ought, from quite early on, to have at least a notion of what lies beneath the film's haunting, so Solomon's insistence on spelling it all out (several times) at the end both insults the viewer's intelligence and dilutes any claim that the film might have made to subtlety, which is, after all, the very lifeblood of a ghost story.

It is not that An American Haunting is so terrible. The visuals are stunning, the performances unobtrusive and it has its fair share of spooky moments. Yet, in the end, it becomes haunted by the unwelcome presence of heavy-handedness, making it seem more like a busy domestic melodrama (with a ghost) than a truly unnerving chiller.

Reviewed on: 18 Mar 2006
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An American Haunting packshot
A 19th century Tennessee ghost story, "based on true events"
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Director: Courtney Solomon

Writer: Courtney Solomon. based on the novel by Brent Monahan

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Hurd-Wood, James D'Arcy, Thom Fell, Matthew Marsh, Gaye Brown

Year: 2005

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/UK/Canada/Romania


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