Doors squeak, floors creak, thunder roars and music soars in An American Haunting, a tale of a young girl and her family who were bedeviled by some sort of spirit in Red River, Tennessee, during the early 1800s. Sadly, the most mysterious thing about this overwrought horror- thriller-mystery is how two fine actors like Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek became involved in such a dreadful movie.
Sutherland and Spacek portray the parents of lovely Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood), a teenager just beginning to realize her power over the men in her life -- a teacher (James D’Arcy), a fellow student (Sam Alexander) and her own father. Soon after John Bell (Sutherland) is condemned by church officials for usury in his dealings with a Very Angry Woman, strange sounds are heard in the Bell house. Then things get worse. Betsy experiences nightmares followed by episodes of being tossed around in her bed, dragged across the floor, held suspended in midair and slapped by an invisible entity. Eventually, other physical manifestations -- such as smashing windows and breaking furniture -- occur. And John Bell suffers from strange hallucinations involving a ferocious black wolf.
Why is all this happening? Could the Very Angry Woman be a witch who has put a spell on the Bells? Is Satan himself at work here? Or is something else responsible? I can’t tell you, of course, but the real cause -- which I still have trouble believing -- is revealed in a brief and unsatisfying section of the film set in modern times.
Based on true events, this case is touted as the only documented one in U.S. history in which a spirit caused the death of a person, so there’s great material here for a scary film. Too bad almost everything went awry. I say “almost” because the movie manages to boast a gothic visual atmosphere that’s quite appropriate for this type of story. Those eerie forests, dimly lit rooms, and dark rainy nights definitely gave me a creepy feeling similar to my sense of dread while watching The Village. Also, Sutherland (Pride & Prejudice) and Spacek (In the Bedroom) deliver completely convincing performances as devastated parents.
Unfortunately, the film’s LOUD sound effects, repetitive thrashing-about scenes, and overpowering music (which, believe it or not, in one scene sounds whimsical!) just about drove me nuts. Seldom do I want to walk out on a film -- no matter how awful it is. But An American Haunting joins Van Helsing and The Man on this short list.
(Released by After Dark Films and rated “PG-13” for intense terror sequences and thematic material.)