May 21, 2006

Movie Review: An American Haunting

An American Haunting begins with a scene that seems to be straight out of the Evil Dead series. A girl is running through the woods being chased by an unseen force. She runs, falls down, runs some more, falls down again, before finally getting inside a house and locking the door. The force makes the door shake before it breaks through and chases her upstairs. Just when you think she is going to "get it," she wakes up screaming. It was only a nightmare. That leads to mommy consoling her, then questioning her about some papers and a doll she finds on the floor. They were items from the off limits attic. Mommy takes them downstairs and proceeds to start reading them. The papers are a first person account of the haunting of the Bell family in the early 1800s, and the main focus of this movie.

Let me be blunt, this movie is terrible. The acting is bland, with no real characters to care about spouting dialogue that goes nowhere. The movie is a good cure for insomnia, as I found myself nodding off a few times, only to be awoken by some lame jump scare. There is no tension built up, things just happen with no explanation.

The story boils down to John Bell cheats a woman out of some land and money, he is found guilty of breaking church law, and is cursed by the victim. After the cursing takes place, strange things befall John and his daughter, Betsy. He sees a wolf attacking him, he gets some unexplained sickness. Betsy, on the other hand, gets the brunt of the attack, being dragged aroung the room, pulled up by her hair and beaten. I have to ask, to what end? The crime seemed minor enough, and there was just no reason to really care.

I know that this was based on the "true" story of the Bell Witch. I also admit to knowing nothing of this most documented haunting and longest unsolved mystery. That said, I cannot make any claim as to its authenticity with regards to what has been written. Perhaps, if I was familiar with the tale, the film would have been more interesting. I counter that by saying I should not have to know about previously released materials to "understand" the movie.

An American Haunting does not shed any light on what happened, it doesn't try to explain anything, and it doesn't give us any insight into the characters. Donald Sutherland seems lost as the Bell patriarch, and Sissy Spacek has nothing to do as his wife. Rachel Hurd-Wood gets the most action as Betsy, she gets to be dragged around and scream a lot. The cast is instantly forgettable, as well as all the events.

There is no flow to the movie. It is almost as if they put the movie together, then went back and cut out all the scenes that offered development. What the left behind they put together, regardless of the lack of cohesion that it offered. I realize that we are meant to be kept in the dark, but this goes to the extreme. For example, the recurring presence of a young girl, which is alluded to as being a manifestation of Betsy. Another example is the picture in the present days scenes of Betsy and, I am assuming, her husband, who is actually her teacher at the time of the events, except for the suggestion of improper conduct between the two. I found it quite maddening how these pieces never came together.

Besides the awe inspiring dullness of the script, I was also perplexed by the present day scenes. The only reason I can come up with for their inclusion, besides the obvious setup for a sequel, is that those behind the film did not have faith in their material and felt the need for these sandwiching scenes to set the stage. All they really succeeded in doing is add a few more charcaters not to care about, include some annoying voice over, and the ability to cut away to a concerned face, you know, to help the audience know what they're going to think. Thank you, I wouldn't have known how to feel if I didn't have those markers. Don't get me started on the use of loud music cues accompanying the poorly conceived jump scares.

It all seems like such a waste. The film looks great, due to the work of Adrian Biddle. An American Haunting looks stunning, the images are all very well composed and framed, with moody lighting and some good angles. Biddle has worked on some excellent films in the past such as V for Vendetta, Reign of Fire (looked better than it was, but I liked the film), Event Horizon, Butcher Boy, and Aliens. I think it would have been interesting to see him, helm the movie himself. Instead, we get Courtney Solomon, whose only other credit is the abysmal Dungeons & Dragons. Oh yeah, Solomon was also the screenwriter. Perfect.

Bottomline. Avoid this movie, unless you actually are suffering from insomnia. There is no purpose for this story, as it stands. There are nuggets that could have been a good base for a fictional film. The talents of the cast are wasted, and the direction is terribly lackluster. The only reason to even consider this would be the nice looking cinematography. Otherwise, avoid this stinker like the plague.

NOT Recommended.
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