The awful director of Dungeons & Dragons (2000) strikes again with An American Haunting (2005). It is set in Tennessee & alleges to be true, since Martin Van buren Ingram's wildly fabricated An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch (1894) says so.
The oldest version of the legend dates to 1886, when, in accordance with the spiritualist fads of the time, the ghost through a medium was reportedly revealing minor family secrets to people who came from miles around, as well telling jokes & being in general an entertaining slip of a spirit.
So Ingram had to invent a great deal to make it interesting beyond the local hollers, including the whopper repeated by the film's advertising campaign, that President Andrew Jackson personally investigated the story & proved the ghost was not merely real, but it was the only ghost officially, governmentally proven to have murdered a living man.
None of which was known to anyone anywhere, & is documented nowhere, before Ingram made it up.
All of it is worth debunking only because so many people have written about this mediocre movie as though it adhered to something resembling facts. Apparently its chief charm for many is the non-fact that it's "true," but let's get real here.
This version is based on the novel The Bell Witch (1995) by Brent Monahan, & of course it's no more "true" than the universal story of the janitor's hanging ghost behind the movie screen at whatever old theater in town hasn't yet been torn down in favor of a multiplex.
The Bell family did exist, had a great many children, & were old time holy rollers who were "possessed" into grunting seizures or frenzied dancing & jabbering like monkeys calling it "tongues," in the manner of so many religious cranks of the day. It happened every Sunday at church & this, rather than a killer ghost, was the basis for the "authentic" legend.
But what the hay, just because fictioneers tell whoppers about it all being true doesn't mean we can't enjoy a piece of crap legend if we want to. The question is, is this one halfway to good enough to enjoy as the decidedly untrue ghost story it happens to be?
The preview was slick & implied an up-market sort of horror film. Plus, with anything starring Sissy Spacek, it's easy to assume it can't be standard trash horror. So I expected better than the film delivered.
It starts with a dream of a Ringu or Ju-on type ghost, but cheesier. The dreaming girl's mom begins reading a diary or manuscript from the attic as we flashback to 1817. In the new setting we get the better cast, a better soundtrack, & it looks like it might be a cool film after all, despite a poor beginning.
In that past time, Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) was a pretty young thing coming of age with a crush on her teacher. Sissy Spacek plays Betsy's mom Lucy Bell. Donald Sutherland is John Bell, her rather hideous dad, overplayed in the same manner as the typecast Sutherland plays too many villainous characters. He is, nevertheless, a fine actor, as is Sissy, & their skill shows up the rest of the cast as unable to do as well.
John cheated a neighbor woman, Kathe Batts (Gaye Brown), of her timber. So she curses him & his precious daughter too with "a dreadful darkness." By spring of 1818 the possibility of the curse working all too well no longer seemed foolish superstition, as a ghostly black wolf begins to haunt the estate.
The variety of hauntings that unfold cause the story to be unfocused. Too obviously much of what happens does not grow out of the needs of the story, but from the commercial filmmaker belief that something outrageous has to happen every eight minutes or the slow-attention-span mentally retarded audiences they're imagining goes to these things won't have a good time.
Certainly there are some spooky & moody images presented here & there, as well as an array of sounds much more effective than usual, with Betsy one of the greatest of screamers besides.
The array of supernatural action scenes tend to be familiar ones, a bit from The Exorcist, a bit from Poltergeist, & so on. It can be watched as a sort of game called "spot the plagiarism!" First to name ten better films that did the exact same thing wins.
The prayerful exorcism was nicely underplayed & should've been more of a centerpiece to the film. It's weakened by the gauded up script calling for more FX than character or acting.
After the exorcism, the haunting is worse than ever, as Betsy is dragged out of bed by an invisible presence (actually, by a visible wire) & suspended in air, beaten something fierce.
As an aside, the film bumbles into the issue of slavery in America. Zack (deprived even of a screen credit) is the slave who works for Kate Betts, & Chloe (Miquel Brown) is one of the Bells' slaves. We don't know the Bells have slaves until halfway through the film, when suddenly they've got two to assist with the limping plot.
This is poor film construction to say the least, & I couldn't help but wonder where the slaves were for the first half of the story. Locked in the root cellar until needed? Tied up in a shed? On vacation to Jersey?
Betsy also gets a girlfriend who sleeps with her from out of the blue, creating a puzzlingly awkward continuity problem.
The teacher Richard, at first a rationalist, cannot deny there's a grotesque haunting. He tries to make sense of the ornate complexity & variety of manifestations, but cannot, because in fact the story is not making any sense & never will. Having Richard notice this inside the story didn't make it better. He comes off as an ineffective Greek chorus trying to tell the audience what's going on, but giving up because it's too nonsensical.
A sequence where the ghost itself goes into a panic because Betsy has been away is one of the few completely effective moments, & again needed to be framed by characterization rather than excesses of unrelated & poorly justified horror FX. The suffering family under this weight of misery is truly tragic but the emotion of it gets totally lost in pyrotechnics that require no actors at all.
There's a less important "modern" story strung through the film as a teenage girl seems to be haunted as was the original Betsy Bell. The main message though it all is that skanky Tennessee hillbillies make bad neighbors, stink to high heaven, & have family secrets ready-made for the Jerry Springer Show.
It is in the present that the old family secret comes to the surface. By the time the film gets round to unveiling "the truth," it doesn't entirely explain the plethora of phenomena pulled out of the trash bag, but nevertheless it's a horrific secret.
Go into this film expecting trashy horror & it might deliver a little more than one's lowest expectation. Go into expecting classy horror worthy of Sissy Spacek being in it & you'll surely be disappointed.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl