An American Haunting (2005)

Director:  Courtney Solomon
Studios:  Allan Zeman Productions, Midsummer Films, Remstar Productions
Starring:  Rachel Hurd-Wood, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek
Tagline:  Possessions Knows No Bounds
MPAA Rating:  PG-13
Genre:  horror, terror, thriller, drama, haunting, possession, surprise ending
Scare score:  D+
Rating:  D

Plot overview:  In present day Tennessee, a mother wakes her daughter from a nightmare, and then gets to reading a long note written by an ancestor.  Back in the early 1800s, the respectable John Bell (Sutherland) loses his good reputation after being accused of breaking church law by means of usury against his scornful neighbor, the supposed witch Kate Batts (Gaye Brown).  Kate then warns Bell to enjoy the health and happiness of his family, specifically his daughter Betsy (Hurd-Wood), while they still can.  Shortly thereafter a series of strange noises, moving objects, and other poltergeist-like behavior begin to both the Bell family.  Worse yet, Betsy begins suffering from night terrors and unexplainable, evil forces in the night, causing her to lose sleep.  As the situation grows worse, mother Lucy Bell (Spacek) and even the schoolteacher Richard Powell (James D'Arcy) try finding logical reasons to the happenings until they can only accept that this haunting has been brought on by some curse.  But is Kate Batts behind the terrible plague, or are sinners simply being brought to justice?

I was really rooting for this movie, but at the end it just didn't deliver.  While watching, I even realized that I had seen this movie or at least parts of it years ago on TV or something; not too memorable I guess.  Not much to say here, but here we go:

The whole movie is set up to appear to be a haunting coming from a curse placed upon the Bell family by the bitter neighbor who is also a witch.  There is some fun American superstition and history built in here - leave it to slaves to know details of how curses work I guess... - but I also found myself questioning some of the activities and items shown to be around in 1817 or whatever year this movie takes place.  What might draw a viewer to this movie is that good, wholesome, frontier setting.  The costumes and sets were interesting, but then the whole period issue really starting affecting the movie in my book.  I think what perhaps most prevents this movie from being scary is the fact that the characters in their bonnets and cravats become almost too cartoonish to really allow any terror to set in.  I liked Sissy Spacek as the mother, but everyone else was too weird, too ridiculous, even.  At times, it truly felt as though even the actors weren't buying it.  I was especially bugged by Sutherland, and I can't tell you why- other than the fact that his hair was really bizarre and if that was a wig/ supposed to be a wig it made him look over the top.  The speech and dialogue became awkward sometimes even when they weren't trying to imitate 19th-century speech/ not doing a good job imitating 19th-century speech.  I kept wanting to be scared, but it was impossible with these kooky settlers running around.

I'm torn about how the ghost/ spirit/ (nothing) was portrayed as we were so often set behind its eyes and allowed to see the happenings in black and white.  Part of me says "okay this is cool" where as the rest (and maybe majority) of me is like "stop trying to do cool effects and focus on actually making the scary scenes scary."  Every incident started becoming the same; I fell asleep at one point and couldn't tell which sequences I had seen and which ones I had not.  How many times can we sit through Betsy's sheets being pulled off, her arms and legs being held to the bed, whispering getting louder, then Betsy being pulled into the air and slapped around, which some tell-tale blood on her nightgown at the end?  Do we ever even seen any sort of spirit or is it always invisible - and then if they've wasted all this time with some 'spirit,' the surprise resolution of the haunting (which I admit I sort of liked) still remains almost frustrating, because what was real and what was not and how did supernatural things occur if everything only came from a suppressed, psychic source?

I really felt that the filmmakers here wanted to get some sort of message across, but in order to do so a lot of the actual happenings of the film were ignored or left unresolved.  This film also relied heavily on horror motifs, repeating images, returning scares that keep us questioning 'why?' without really explaining anything until the end.  The whole, "You brought this upon yourself" bit was good though; I enjoy movies where we are re-shown scenes from a different and revealing angle.

Final critique:  This film isn't very scary although it is filled with plenty of confusing and loud haunting sequences.  The plot can be interesting if you pay enough attention to follow, and the resolution (and ending) do add a kick to an otherwise droll film (droll but with a lot of action... it's confusing).  I guess more so than actually scaring some viewers, the loud and 'violent' haunting scenes might sort of frighten you, if you can understand the difference, or at the very least make you uncomfortable.  I wouldn't really recommend this film, but it's not bad to leave on in the background if you're having a half-hearted scary movie night.