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Donald Sutherland as John Bell
Sissy Spacek as Lucy Bell
Rachel Hurd-Wood as Betsy Bell
James D'Arcy as Richard Powell
Matthew Marsh as James Johnston
Thom Fell as John Jr.
Sam Alexander as Joshua Gardner
Gaye Brown as Kate Batts
Zoe Thorne as Theny Thorne
Miquel Brown as Chloe
Shauna Shim as Anky
Directed by Courtney Solomon
After a satisfactory number of chills and scares, this "true to life" supernatural thriller grinds to an abrupt halt with a disappointing twist and an even more pointless epilogue.
Between 1818 and 1820, the Bell family of Red River, Tennessee were haunted by a ghost that focused mainly on their teen daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). As her parents (Sissy Spacek, Donald Sutherland) and acquaintances try to find ways of exorcising the house of the ghost, the situation only got worse, leading to a fatal conclusion to the sad tale.
Despite all of the horror movies out in the last few months, many of them have lost sight of how to really scare an audience, instead opting for blood, gore and violence to get a reaction. That isn't the case with this loose adaptation of Brent Monahan's "The Bell Witch: An American Haunting," which documented a real case of a spiritual haunting that actually wound up with someone dead.
The film starts with a teen girl being chased through the woods by some entity, setting the tone for a movie, which mostly takes place in a flashback to almost two centuries earlier. The Bell family are suffering personal hardships after being disgraced due to a land dispute, and the plaintiff, a woman rumored to be a witch, is so unhappy with the court's decision that she puts a curse on the family. It doesn't take long before they're experiencing strange occurrences from phantom wolves to visitations from evil spirits who have set their sights on their young daughter Betsy. Everything they try to do to exorcise these malicious ghosts to no avail, as every time nighttime comes, the attacks escalate.
"An American Haunting" is a good old-fashioned ghost story full of suspense and real scares along the lines of movies like "Poltergeist", "The Others" or even last year's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." The references to a well-documented historical haunting adds a bit more credibility, forcing you to suspend your disbelief of whether spirits or ghosts might actually exist. Setting a ghost story in this time period and setting may seem a bit strange at first, especially since it's a bitter reminder of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village," which can't be a good thing. Fortunately, you're too busy being frightened by the almost non-top scares to really be distracted by the often cheesy 19th Century dialogue.
Once it gets going, the film is pretty intense, and while there's a good chance those watching won't have any idea what's going on, it just makes the scares more jarring. Avoiding any true blood or gore, the mostly practical effects aren't that great, obviously done on a very low budget. The actual ghost looks pretty bad, which is too bad, since the film is technically impressive otherwise, from the sweeping camera shots to the terrific sets and music, which effectively sets a creepy tone for the action. At one point, the Bells try to escape the farm with Betsy in a horse-drawn carriage, but the spirits are having none of it, leading to one of the movie's most striking moments with a stunt that really isn't like anything we've seen in a horror movie.
It's always great to see this sort of scarefest cast with strong veteran actors able to bring a true sense of drama and tension to the film, and in that sense, you can't do much better than Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek. Spacek mostly spends the movie walking through dark corridors with a candle acting frightened, and while it is fairly spooky, it doesn't come close to the physical torment that Sutherland and actress Rachel Hurd-Wood—she played Wendy in the recent version of "Peter Pan"—have to endure.
The problem is that after an hour of being convinced that the ghosts and evil spirits, which terrorized the Bell family, may have actually existed, the movie delivers a twist, presumably taken from the book, which pretty much debunks everything we just saw. Before this new idea can be explored any further, we're transported back into the modern day and the movie just abruptly ends. With such a big revelation, one would expect a bit more dissertation or explanation, especially after such a confusing ride.
It's nice to see that director Courtney Solomon doesn't subscribe to the "longer is better" theorem, but a bit of exposition and character-building would have done wonders at making what was just an okay chiller much better. As it is, the modern day stuff is just a red herring, which does nothing to enhance the story and everything to ruin all of the earlier efforts.
The Bottom Line:
An American Haunting could have honestly been a great horror film with its fast paced chills and thrills and competent cast, but the ending is handled so poorly that you forget how much you might have enjoyed the rest of the movie.