An American Haunting
The Bell Witch is a legend based on true documents of the only case in US History where an entity caused the death of a man and a folklore that's still as strong today as it was back then. It's been the subject of various paranormal researchers and historians, some even swearing that they've seen the Bell Witch and her apparitions till this day.
An American Haunting encompasses 2 generations of families; although the Bell family in 1817 receives the most screen time than the contemporary portrayal that sets up the legend of the Bell Witch. With its predictable true story label slavishly tagged on to give it some smidgen of credibility. The family in the future, bookends the narration of the events that started the lore. Its a tacky framing device that reeks of an anemic and frail script from creative abjection.
It's unfortunate that such a truly incredible and chilling tale of revenge, torture and evil has boiled down to what essentially is a PG weekend fright-flick intended to bring in young cineplexers as well as audiences willing to revel in a good ol' forgettable boogeyman story. Dousing us with Tennessee period atmosphere and commendable set designs, the heavy pretense bogs down its 2 most veteran thespians' talents with a tarnishing waft of self-importance.
Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland are John and Lucy Bell, in 1817 and proud parents of the marriageable Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and the John Jr. (Thom Fell). They are the foci of the narrative, which constantly carries an air of portentous foreboding. Supporting characters include Richard Powell (James D'Arcy), suitor apparent to Betsy who solders onto the family as if he was already married to her.
The inconsistent characterisation of Sutherland's John Bell is a aching and sore point. To believe he was dishonest would be difficult due to his obvious endearment towards his family. His character goes through revolutions of character changes that's awkward and contrived to fit a scattered and disorganised screenplay that was trying to fit in as many documented 'accounts' of the Bells as possible. To his credit, the mileage of the film's many supernatural vivacities is bitterly shown on Sutherland's final diminutive state. Spacek plays an impassive role, the rangering the family as both her husband and daughter are slowly and cruelly abused. Second fiddle to Sutherland, she plays it the best she can with intense and covert glances of feeble moroseness.
The chemistry between the Richard and Betsy, non-existent as it is, still plays an important part in understanding the dynamics of those trapped in the house with a vengeful spirit. He is her sole comfort. Richard, who's also Betsy's teacher portrays an underlying pride in his intellect and belief in science. It's the first time his knowledge of the world has failed him, as he sees his betrothed, be thrown about like a rag doll as the spirit habitually targets and possesses her nightly. She's burdened with the brunt of the spirit's unexplained but undeniable fury.
There's a distinct lack of progress in the film. Running scare-gags include, creaking floorboards, unnatural convulsions and physical abuse by the 'affected' and now-you-see-it, now-you-don't visual devices. It becomes obvious halfway through the film that the director has no clue on how to sustain the tense moments that he begins to stage, usually with the help of a loud sound. All in all, its a sad attempt to imitate a similarly themed Exorcism of Emily Rose, which actually had depth and a deft touch beneath its well-worn exterior
Although much is said about the theories bandied about the Bell Witch's true intentions with the Bell family, no one has conclusively stated who and why the entity haunted them. Most of the theories are conjecture and flippant suppositions. And thats An American Haunting's biggest flaw. It's final reveal is so aggravating anticlimactic and flimsy, it's not going to please or placate anyone who wanted something minutely plausible that's analogous with an actual horror story. It's not something that needed condescending social commentary.
Rating: 2 out of 5