Wednesday, May 10, 2006

An American Haunting

Based on true events that happened between 1818 and 1820, An American Haunting is the story of the Bell Family in Red River, Tennesee, and about the spiritual presence that tormented their youngest daughter and eventually caused a family member's death.

The film starts out with a promising chase sequence. A teenage girl fleeing from something unseen through a forest, into her room, and then confronted with someone trying to get in her bedroom door. Enter the girl's mom, waking her up from a nightmare. She finds a package in her daughter's room that was taken from the attic, and takes it downstairs to look at -- in which she finds a diary written by Lucy Bell, describing the terrors they experienced. Her narration pushes us into the "real" story, and thankfully, back in time to start a grim period piece.

John (Donald Sutherland) and Lucy (Sissy Spacek) Bell are living a happy life on their property until John decides to screw over neighboring landowner Kate Batts (Gaye Brown, who knows how to play a bitch very effectively) by making her pay him back a loan at too high an interest. The result: a curse from Batts, directed at John and his daughter, Betsy.

After alluding to a possible romantic entanglement between 16-year-old Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and her schoolteacher Richard Powell (James D'Arcy), strange things start happening in the Bell house. Starting with creaky noises in the attic and menacing wolves in the forest, the story moves pretty quickly to full-blown poltergeist disturbances that eventually involve dangling Betsy from the ceiling, where she is smacked around violently while the rest of the family watches in horror. The schoolteacher's logic fails, prayers have no effect, and John Bell's pleas to Kate Batts to lift the curse are to no avail. She tells him simply that he has made his own hell, and must live with it.

Now, ghost films don't usually get to me. I'm much too busy anticipating what's going to happen for anything to be surprised. But I'll admit, I jumped a LOT during this one. Director Courtney Solomon (we're just going to ignore the fact that his only other film was Dungeons & Dragons) really uses the "jump and startle" technique to its full ability. He also packs in a lot of cringe"nducing sequences with Betsy -- head banged, smacked around, pulled by hair, dragged around, and ravaged -- until she is so exhausted she can't move. John Bell's physical afflictions are a little less interesting, but do win some points for the gross-out factor.

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the ghost-y atmosphere of this film. I thought Spacek and Sutherland did amazing jobs (even with the predictably thin material), and was also impressed with how Hurd-Wood turned her wide-eyed, pouty-mouthed beauty into absolute agony. The only thing I would say is: that girl just does not have a terrifying scream; in fact, it sounded more like she had a froggy-sore throat - I seriously had to stifle my laughter. As for James D'Arcy, I could simply watch that man for hours without him having to say a single word of dialog.

And now for what I did NOT enjoy: The terrible present day conclusion. It damn near ruined the entire film for me. I can see what they were going for -- a tie"n to bring it all together, explaining the opening sequence and relating what was happening now with then. However, the whole thing was completely unnecessary, as the few portions they showed of the present day story in the middle of the film were awful (just the mom reading the diary, and making shocked faces at it while she drank Absolut, in the middle of the afternoon, apparently -- no ghost related activity save the beginning nightmare), and I really think that the story could have been told completely without the use of a diary, and probably even without narration.

If you can ignore that, then I recommend going. And if you can, take someone with you who always jumps at startling moments. It will be much more fun that way!

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