Regardless, An American Haunting begins with a present-day setting that we soon discover is a framing device for the actual "Bell Witch" haunting that took place around 1817. A mother begins reading a dusty old journal as the setting flashes back to the ancestral Bell family's home in the Red River bottoms of Tennessee. We quickly learn that the old school family patriarch, John Bell (Donald Sutherland) was involved in a land deal gone awry. Rather than getting a cap popped in his arse, as would be the punishment today for being found guilty of breaking the usury laws, he found himself on the receiving end of a curse spelled by a local witch.
Shortly thereafter, things begin to go bump in the night and ghostly apparitions appear throughout the Bell mansion. Concentrating on Bell's younger daughter Betsy, (Rachel Hurd-Wood), the spirits transmogrify themselves into the form of a bonneted schoolgirl that only Betsy can see. Sightings become more frequent and mysterious activity soon escalates as Betsy eventually finds herself on the painful end of slappings, molestation, sexual assaults, and otherwise Linda Blair-like thrashings.
Writer/producer/director Courtney Solomon is a firm believer in a horror movie theory that yours truly also happens to buy a lot of stock in. The idea is that the viewer will be more frightened by what he doesn't see, than what he does. The viewer's imagination can almost always create a scarier monster than even the best movie s/fx artist can. So, in An American Haunting we never see the ghost with our own eyes, but we see what it sees by means of roving steadycam shots that aren't too steady. While this horror theory is generally foolproof, its success depends on the filmmaker creating a believably spooky environment. Here, Solomon doesn't. Note to director: thunder, lightning, fog, loud noises and annoyingly abrupt jump cuts are not enough to frighten the audience. Sure you get a few cheap starts, but it ultimately fails to create genuine fear.
Lucy Bell, the mother of the clan, is played by the queen of horror herself, Sissy Spacek. She takes to her role like the veteran she is. Realizing her character is just a simple woman facing extraordinary circumstances, Spacek never gets too overtly hammy as does most of the remaining cast. It's as if everyone sensed the film's problems early on and felt overacting might save the day.
Lending a creepy aura of authenticity to the film, Solomon uses several of the actual Bell family paranormal events/sightings that were documented by government authorities. At first, the back-of-the-neck creepy-crawlies are fun and genuine, but they eventually become tiresome and tedious as Solomon uses the same tactics over and over. Candles flare to the ceiling, Betsy's body lurches and thrashes, that obnoxious shaky camera rattles our brain and 85 decibel audio pops break our eardrums. It's more visual tricks than psychological ones and it should be the other way around. After the first hour of the film, nothing new happens and when the twisty ending does finally arrive, it reduces the entire story to an episode of Oprah. Not that there's anything wrong with Oprah.
Screen formats: Widescreen 1.85:1; Closed Captioned
Available Subtitles: English; Spanish
Language and Sound: English: Dolby Digital 5.1
Other Features: Color; interactive menus; scene access; deleted scenes; making-of featurette; bloopers; cast and crew interviews.
* Commentary - Video commentary with director Courtney Solomon - (not a full-length feature commentary)
* Alternate and Deleted Scenes
* Interview - With Courtney Solomon and Sissy Spacek
* Internet Promotions
* Trailer and TV Spots
Number of discs: - 1- Keepcase Packaging
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