Before my showing of An American Haunting, there were projector problems. Ninety-five minutes later, rolling my eyes like Marty Feldman on airplane glue, I felt I would have been much happier if the repairs had never been made. It was like spending an afternoon in the world’s lamest haunted house.
The movie covers the only recorded event of a human being dying from a spirit, which took place in Red River, Tennessee in the early 1800s. The events unfold after John Bell (Donald Sutherland
) is cast off by his church for committing usury. The victim of Bell’s shady business practices, an alleged witch, then threatens Bell: “I swear a dreadful darkness will fall upon you, and your precious daughter, too.” That statement, by the way, should be amended to include the audience. Article continues below
Soon after those ominous words, Bell’s “precious daughter,” Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood
), has visions of a creepy girl that looks like the one from The Ring, endures terrible nightmares, and gets thrown around her bedroom like the patsy in a wrestling match. Betsy’s parents, a family friend, and her professor all try to rid the Bell house of the evil forces giving her such nighttime grief.
What happens between Betsy’s first horrifying experience and the end of the movie is nearly unbearable. Director/writer Courtney Solomon
’s (Dungeons & Dragons) setup is as follows: Betsy gets possessed and thrown around her bedroom; the Bell family gets concerned and holds a meeting; repeat about eight billion times. None of this is scary because it’s redundant, and Solomon’s timing is always off. The best horror movies work in a cause and effect pattern. Example: The gymnasium doors closing on Carrie’s classmates and teachers is the most gut-wrenching part of that movie’s classic ending. Once we know there’s no way out, the dread rises and the ensuing bloodbath is actually anticlimactic.
Unfortunately, Solomon ignores this maxim. He devotes countless minutes to Hurd-Wood, looking runway model perfect throughout, writhing in her bed and scurrying across the floor. These actions (some of which, by the way, are unintentionally funny) are never prefaced by anything. A basic theory of film study is that audiences are scared by what they don’t see, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be teased or seduced. Solomon crams cheap fright down the audience’s throat, ignoring setup or creativity. To wit, there's a lame modern-day tie-in that makes absolutely no sense and, surprise, isn’t scary, either. Also, the movie doesn’t end as much as screech to a halt, as if creditors were coming any minute to grab the dolly tracks.
The scariest part of An American Haunting is how Sutherland and Sissy Spacek
, playing his wife, got roped into this project. Neither role reflects their stellar careers, especially Spacek, who got her last Oscar nod for 2001’s In the Bedroom, which now seems like a lifetime ago. I hope Solomon kept a lot of behind-the-scenes footage, because the stars’ dawning comprehension that they were in this steaming pile is probably hell of a lot scarier than anything in An American Haunting.