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An American Haunting (2005)
Former U.S. President Andrew Jackson once stated he would rather face the entire British army than spend one night in the Bell house. While that’s a resounding endorsement of the Bell Witch’s creepiness, a real-life, well-documented ghost that haunted the Bell family from Red River, Tennessee between 1817 and 1821, it says nothing about the film. And believe me, Jackson wouldn’t want to face that mess either.
Several published accounts about the witch are available including a novel with the same title by Brent Monahan; The Bell Witch: The Full Account by paranormal scholar Pat Fitzhugh; Black Book by Charles Bailey Bell, John’s great-grandson, published in 1934; and Thirteen Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey by journalist Kathryn Tucker Windham. The Bell Witch is a Hall-of-Famer when it comes to legendary apparitions and has inspired many, including the makers of The Blair Witch Project. (P.S. Reading about this witch is probably more interesting than watching it in this film.).
What director Courtney Solomon does with this project is unfortunate, because he missed one helluvan opportunity. One wonders if Solomon, who after watching a few minutes of his bonus interview with Sissy Spacek made me lunge for the remote (His third question? In an arrogant tone, “So Sissy, tell me, what was it like working with me?”), is perhaps just a very, very lucky man. To get this source material and a cast with two legends, Spacek and Donald Sutherland, and then essentially churn out a below-average fright flick is itself scary. Critics have panned this film up and down, and deservedly so, but while I don’t necessarily see it as the total nightmare some have claimed, I’ll relent and say it’s simply not very good.
The film begins with a contemporary woman, a divorced alcoholic, reading a letter left behind from a former inhabitant of her home. The letter of course narrates the evil doings of the Bell Witch. We are then transported roughly 190 years back in time to Red River, Tennessee, where patriarch John Bell, played by Sutherland, lives with his wife, Spacek, and family. Bell becomes embroiled in a bad real estate deal, and the woman who loses land is, coincidentally, his neighbor and a witch. She curses him, and the movie unfolds into a series of increasingly more dramatic hauntings. Bell’s daughter is the recipient of the majority of the ghost’s ill will. The film deviates a bit from the legend by adding some shady sexual overtones at the conclusion, which resorts back to the contemporary woman and her daughter, who are experiencing some similar trauma as the Bells.
First, to be kind. Watching Sutherland and Spacek is still quite fun. They are two splendid actors, and Spacek in particular can captivate an audience like few other women. Her eyes and the gazes they cast are mesmerizing. In this film, she has an uncanny ability to play both the nurturing and crazed matriarch. Her vulnerable, passive, and compassionate soul is often contradicted by an underlying sense of possession, although it’s never clear what possesses her (besides some really good acting skills). A hangover since the Carrie days, that paradox is still powerful. Sutherland is equally good at blending into scenes, dialogue, and the script. A master of understatement and subtlety, his work as the concerned, and also at times possessed, father complements Spacek nicely.
Beyond those two performances though, the film slides downhill quickly. The weak attempt to jam this narrative into a contemporary context never works because not enough time is devoted to the modern family. When the film resorts back to their problems, we’ve already forgotten them and their relevance. A few periodical flashbacks or flashforwards might have woven a more complex and engaging tale.
Furthermore, perhaps I’m just being dumb here (certainly not the first time), but it was never clear to me why the Bell daughter is the recipient of the ghost’s wrath. What did she do? Why isn’t the ghost directly haunting and targeting the father? Early in the film, the neighbor-witch says she will doom that “pretty little daughter” of yours to John Bell. OK, fine. But why? If this was designed to show just how evil the ghost was (picking on an innocent girl), the ghost really doesn’t cause much harm. Throughout the film, I was scratching my head with this one. And because the daughter’s character is never developed, I wanted to feel sympathy for her, but couldn’t because I didn’t “know” anything about her.
I was also patiently waiting for the religious theme to develop because there are allusions throughout to Christianity, but that never happened either. Nor did any explanation emerge of the hallucinatory wolves that haunt John Bell. What the heck are they about?
Perhaps most importantly, the ghost and its conjurer, the neighbor-witch, are never developed as characters either. We know virtually nothing about this woman and her magical ability to conjure ghosts, but we should, since she is essentially the catalyst of the horror. We also know very little about the ghost and rarely ever see it. Subsequently, this ghost was one of the least terrifying I’ve seen in awhile. About 90% of the film unfolded like a grammar school fright fest: no real character development, no real plot, etc…just an excuse to show off some pretentious camerawork to hopefully scare people. And since most of the hauntings appear in the daughter’s bedroom, the allusions to The Exorcist are far from subtle. Sorry, but a quick note to Mr. Solomon… what usually scares people in horror films is the combination and interplay between cinematography, script, character development, sound, etc. Hopefully, he has learned from this mistake.
Oh, I almost forgot…the film’s greatest strength is its length. At only 80+ minutes, it doesn’t infuriate us for too long. I rarely trash films altogether here at C-H, but I’m not convinced this one is even worth your precious 80 minutes. However, I am convinced this subject should be in the hands of a talented horror director with a proven track record. Now that would be interesting.