An American Haunting Not So Haunting
By Kristin Battestella
Originally posted with Flames Rising
Once again a horror movie was on tap for the evening. When in doubt, should you always go to the movies and see a horror film? Based on the title alone, We picked An American Haunting.
The introduction explained the film was based on actual events in Tennessee around 1820, but the action opens in 2006. The modern frame is a weak connection geared at today’s teens. I was not surprised to find out the movie is PG-13. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can make a quality horror movie today without an R rating.
It was pleasing to see Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek as John and Lucy Bell, but the rest of the cast is unremarkable. After a sour deal with a neighbor, John is overruled by the church. His injured neighbor curses John and his daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and thereafter strange things accumulate on the Bell Estate. A vengeful spirit manifests, attacks Betsy, and ultimately claims the life of John.
As refreshing as it was to see a film set in the early 19th century, the story ran thin early. For America’s most famous haunting, and the only one responsible for a death, I certainly had never heard of The Bell Witch before, and I thought myself schooled in such things. I hoped to see everything explained since the main haunting wasn’t told in bits and pieces of herky jerky movie flashbacks, but the film closes with much to interpret.
The haunting itself is debatable. Is it the curse or a poltergeist manifested by Betsy herself? I lean towards the latter, but director Courtney Solomon focuses on repeat attacks instead of definitively explaining the spooks. The unfortunate side effect is that this makes the family look fairly stupid. Initially, it was quite fascinating to see early ghost hunters handle a entity without any technology to speak of. They shoot at a few wolves, candles blow out, the old house creaks. After the first two or three or five occurrences, however, why doesn’t the family at least attempt to leave the house? Betsy leaves her bedroom, but returns to it for more invisible string ups and smack downs. Professor Powell (James D’Arcy) is brought in to help Betsy, but he also has romantic interests in her. Hmm… One highlight of the film shows Betsy being taken away by the Professor and her older brother John Jr. (Thom Fell) in a dangerous carriage chase, but it looks like this was just a dream sequence. Instead the family sends another young girl into Betsy room to be attacked with her!
In the theater I suspected John Bell was responsible for his own terror. Several shots from Solomon hint at a more serious and inappropriately kinky relationship with his daughter. No one would blame Betsy if she subconsciously manifested this presence because of abuse from her father. When Betsy sees the spirit as a playful young girl, is it her own childlike innocence she is trying to recapture? Is Betsy just confused between choosing between two suitors? Does the idea of simple marriage and a home life not appeal to her? We just don’t know.
Was the poltergeist caused by abuse or merely puberty? Blood stains on Betsy’s sheets and John’s shirt –was it rape or a father unable to accept his daughter’s first menstruation? Solomon isn’t quite clear, and his 2006 bookend implies the whole area of Red River, Tennessee is temptation for incestuous dads. As I said, the modern echo raises more questions than gives answers. What is the significance of the attic? Are these people even related? Is it supposed to be the same house? Indeed I hope these basic questions ( and boy there is a lot of them!) were not left unanswered to make room for a sequel. Oiy!
As is the new tradition, I’m sure Courtney Solomon will present a Director’s Cut! Special Edition! or some such. If it’s filled with more of Betsy thrashing around and clawing the floor instead of character development or an alternate ending, I don’t know if I’d buy it.
An American Haunting is a misguided attempt at a classic historical haunting on film. Genre fans who can’t get enough will dig the old school suspense feel, but penny pinchers should wait for a DVD sale or television premiere. I’ve seen better than An American Haunting. If you’re itching for something spooky to do, read a gothic novel instead.