An American Haunting (2005)

Average supernatural film saved by the top billed actors

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Dir. Courtney Solomon

Runtime: 83 minutes

Rating: 15

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, James D’Arcy, Rachel Hurd-Wood

A flash-back film recounting the apparent true story from American history when a spirit caused the death of a man. In the present (in the film it is 2006), Elizabeth, a young mother comforts her daughter after she wakes from a nightmare. After putting her back to sleep she goes to the lounge and reads from a letter and journey that she found in her daughters’ room, which the daughter found in the loft. A flashback then documents the events detailed in the letter/journal. The events of the flashback chronicle the Bell family from Red River, Tennessee, 1817. The patriarch, John Bell, crosses and cheats an apparent witch, Kathe Batts, in a money/land dispute. In a fit of anger, she foretells of a dread befalling John and his family, especially his daughter Betsy. The family become haunted by strange noises and sightings, in particularly Betsy, whose nights are fraught with terror, to the point she is not sleeping properly. Even stranger events occur, all seemingly aimed at causing Betsy pain, she is attacked by things that are not there, she sees ghostly figures, and one night she raped too. The family, along with friends which include the local teacher do everything they can to get to the bottom of events and stop them before its fatal. They even get as far as Holy sermon with incantations to prevents spirits and demons, but nothing seems to work. After failed attempts to get peace, John Bell eventually confronts the ‘witch’ – who confessed that she did not curse the family, John did that himself. The flashback wraps itself up by stating that the spirit which has been haunting them is a representation of Betsy’s vengeance. It transpires that John raped his own daughter, he has been a deviant for some time and has been hiding it from his family. John is murdered by poisoning for the innocence he took and the pain he caused his daughter and his family. Meanwhile, back in the future, the mother, Elizabeth, who is a descendant of Betsy, is confronted by the spirit from the past who tells her to help her own daughter because she is being molested by her own father too.

The supernatural events which unfold in this film are well documented in American folklore, in particularly mentioned in the 1894 book by M. V. Ingram “An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch“. This particular adaptation of the story comes from Brent Monahan’s “The Bell Witch: An American Haunting the Famous Bell Witch“. Unfortunately, there has been speculation by researchers and scholars about the authenticity of the book for years, so the book may just be an early hoax, or even a work of fiction. The twist at the end of the film claiming that John Bell molested a member of his family and was killed for it can not be proved and was likely added to only for the film. This film has been criticised for not sticking closer to the many books that have been written about the Bell Witch haunting – and because of the abundance of ‘source’ material, and because of the many criticisms for not sticking closer to the ‘truth’ about the ‘witch’, this is not something I will be discussing. This is a film review, so let us crack on with looking at the film rather than analysing how authentic it is.

Horror films post 2000 have a need to add lots of jump scares, this 83 minute Courtney Solomon directed film is no different. There are lots of ghastly visual and scares to keep audiences suitably scared. There is also, however, a good amount of tension built up in the film, something that does not always go hand in hand with modern horror films. Forgetting the modern part of the film and mainly focusing on the flashback; it seems apparent early on that things are not as innocent and straight forward as it is implied to be. Despite that I bought into the story and started to think that maybe it was me that was reading it all wrong, and perhaps the events are were more innocent than my 2020 dubious brain was letting me believe. This was testament to good writing and good acting. Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek lead the line well as the Bell parents, Sutherland in particularly had me changing my opinion about John Bell throughout the film. Firth thinking that he’s not as wholesome as he’s supposed to be, then thinking that perhaps he is also a victim, to going full circle and thinking that he deserves his eventual outcome. Rachel Hurd-Wood performs well as Betsy, the haunted daughter and victim of the film. The look and feel of the film is dark and almost washed out. We are obviously dealing with an era that is set back over a hundred years so things will not naturally look as well lit when candlelight is the main source of illumination. There were a few times where I could not fully make out what was going on due to how dark it was, but rather than be upset about it, I just let that fuel the tension being delivered. The setting seemed apt for the era being depicted, but the Bell house did fell like a bit of a TARDIS – there were times when it seemed there was a lot more room inside then what long exterior shots seemed to show. Equally though, there were times where it felt claustrophobic due to the lack of space. This was at times confusing, I asked myself how Mrs Bell didn’t hear what was happening under her own roof, but then there were times where I was thinking that ‘nobody will hear that‘ due to the expanse of space inside the house.

The pace of the film was generally good, although there were a few times were things jumped around a bit, the editing showed time and events moving forward without much explanation.

I enjoyed the film; it was certainly better than I thought I would be seeing when I sat down to watch this on a famous cable horror channel. I must admit though, if it had not of been for Sutherland and Spacek I might not have given the film chance. After I did give it a chance it is obvious to me that these two heavy weights of acting saved a mediocre film from obscurity. I would not recommend this film be watched with younger audiences due to the themes and horror jump effects, that is despite it being rated as 15. I watched this on a Saturday night with the lights off and a beer in hand and I was happy enough.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ (6/10)

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