What initially attracted me to the tale called An American Haunting was the fact that it was touted as a true story based on the Bell Witch of Tennessee. Having recently watched Werewolf Hunter, another film based on a true story from the annals of history, I thought I might be in for some good suspense. The teaser indicated that this story contains the only documented case of a haunting that resulted in death. The teaser promised something that it quite simply didn’t deliver.
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The story of the Bell Witch is apparently well documented in American folklore. If you conduct internet research on the subject will return half a million results. It is a well documented story from the early 1800’s. In the true accounting of the Bell Witch, many strange events were reported, which mirrored the events that were depicted in An American Haunting. However, Courtney Solomon took liberties with the original accounts (I might call them “indecent liberties”) in an effort to give the plot a twist. These changes to the original story make the entire premise that this film is based on a true story a stretch at the very best. I felt duped after watching this drivel, expecting a climactic ending based on historical events. Instead, I was given a weak plot twist that felt contrived, in order to try and provide scientific foundations for the story. The liberties go far beyond artistic license.
John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is an upstanding member of his church and community. We find Bell early in the movie defending himself against his neighbor, Kathe Batts (Gaye Brown) who many people consider to be a witch. The church elders find Bell guilty of usury for charging Batts twenty percent interest involving a property dispute. Batts appears dissatisfied with the judgment, feeling recompense for the timber taken off her land should also be included in the judgment. When her plea falls on deaf ears, Batts takes matters into her own hands. As they are exiting the tribunal, Batts places a curse on John Bell and his daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). This curse begins to manifest itself in the Bell household, where the entire family begins to witness strange events. Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), John Bell Jr (Thom Fell) and family friend James Johnston (Matthew Marsh) also witness strange events in the house. Attempts to exorcise the haunting fail, leaving the family at the mercy of the entity. The film was okay up to that point, tracking much of the documented history. However, the deviation late in the film from the true story does little to further the story, focusing instead on an ill-advised plot twist that ruins the entire story.
An American Haunting is based on a novel written by Brent Monahan. Because the story is based on true events, the scare factor is built in. The important aspect of the writing was to create intensity within the script while keeping the story within the proper context. Deviations from the documented events and minor changes to make the story more interesting would have been fine. But changing the entire premise of the events, and failing to deliver something as simple as the events listed in the teaser leave the story severely lacking. The complete upheaval of this story for a cheap twist was a dumb move. Although the characters were well developed and the dialogue from the 1800s was interesting, the overall story was a farce, leaving me to feel cheated.
The acting in An American Haunting, was a redeeming quality. Although I wasn’t thoroughly convinced by Hurd-Wood’s performance, I have been a long-time fan of Donald Sutherland. As usual, Sutherland impressed me with his skills. Sutherland’s accent could have easily been distracting, but it was subtle. There was a slight drawl that indicated he resided in the south, without the stereotypical excess that southern accents sometimes garner. Sutherland’s performance seemed natural rather than affected. Sissy Spacek was also excellent. Spacek was credible in a motherly role, with a legitimate 1800s look that fit her well. Gaye Brown did not have a major role, but her character was integral to the story…she was strong in her performance as well.
The background in An American Haunting was believable. I enjoy watching period pieces to see the level of detail. The costumes appeared to be authentic, although maybe a bit well-tailored for the time…something I am far from an authority on. The house looked very much like the artists rendering I found of the Bell House when searching the internet regarding this story. The muskets that the Bells carried were long and heavy looking like those I have seen in other films from this period. There was one scene where a character is carrying boards which looked well milled, although I am not certain how precise the milling process was during that time frame. There were a few other minor anachronisms that did not really detract from the overall feel of the period.
An American Haunting was rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. The subject matter involves an inappropriate sexual relationship that is not graphically depicted, but might be a bit much for younger viewers. The ghost theme might also lend itself to nightmares among younger viewers, so some age restrictions should be considered. I would allow my ten year to see this film if I thought it were worth watching again…which I don’t.
I had high hopes for An American Haunting. I was promised one thing in the teaser and given another thing. I don’t like the old “bait and switch” trick. I feel like I got suckered into watching a film that took the easy way out. They cheated me by trying to employ a cheap plot twist that was not historically accurate and did not add anything of value to the film. Although the cast was a bright spot, the writing left me wanting a whole lot more. In the end, I was sorely disappointed at the shortcomings in this movie. As a result, I would not recommend this film. I would give it two stars, showing some deference to the abilities of Spacek and Sutherland, but that’s the best I can do. Two stars out of five.