Donald Sutherland in An American Haunting.
An American Haunting purports to be based on the most documented case of haunting in American History. A note at the end of the film claims that there has been over twenty books written on the haunting and the version they present is based on one of the theories. Apparently this is the big draw to the film but if the filmmakers had taken more license with the story it could have been a better movie. As it is it is just a watered down version of The Exorcist set in the early 1800s.
The story is bookended by scenes in the present with a mother and daughter living living on the spot where there haunting took place. The mother is reading a letter written by Lucy Bell (Spacek) in which she details the events surrounding the haunting. This leads us into the past where the actual story takes place. It's an unnecessary device that I suppose was added to give today's moviegoers someone to connect to.
The main plot of the film starts in 1818, in Red River Tennessee. Following a land dispute with a local woman whom some suspect to be a witch, the prosperous Bell family begin to be visited by a spirit who wreaks havoc on their home and their teenage daughter Betsy, especially. The spirit first manifests itself by making strange noises and by appearing in the form of a black wolf who prowls their farm, appearing and disappearing at will. It then begins to physically attack Lucy, dragging her from her bed and slapping her around. A young girl also begins to appear although Betsy is the only one who sees her.
Betsy's teacher, who scoffs at the idea of a supernatural explanation, takes over the investigation, but he too becomes a believer after witnessing a bible being snatched from someone's hand and windows breaking all without a visible cause.
Eventually, the head of the household, John Bell (Sutherland) swallows his pride and goes to visit the witch, begging her to remove her curse, only to be told that the curse is not her doing, but his own.
It isn't until one of the Bell family members dies that the spirit finally removes itself. The reasoning for why the spirit leaves is detailed at the end of the movie in what could be described as an M. Night Shimalayn moment. If you believe in this sort of thing it makes since, but if you're like me and don't, then it will be an unsatisfying explanation and will leave you with unanswered questions.
While some of the moments are creepy, the movie doesn't contain any real "jump" moments and it never breaks any new ground. For a horror movie, there is very little horror. The only novelty to it is the time period, which is well done and accurate, apart from the accents with only some of the cast even bothering to try to sound southern.
One thing that bothered me while watching was the number of times the spirit would appear in Betsy's bedroom and start attacking her, followed by the family rushing to her room only to be locked out by the spirit. First off, why was this poor girl forced to keep sleeping in that room alone and secondly, why the hell didn't they take the door out after the first couple of times this happened?
If you're a believer in ghosts and spirits you might enjoy this film. It just made me want to find out what really happened in that house. The final reveal gives you ideas of a rational explanation, but the filmmakers, like the people of that time, are too enraptured of the supernatural side of things to really make an investigation into alternatives.
Photos © Copyright Freestyle Releasing LLC (2006)