An American Haunting

The “based on a true story” moniker once again gets raked over the coals in director Courtney Solomon’s latest disappointment – AN AMERICAN HAUNTING. Solomon who infamously directed 2000’s epic disaster DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS forgoes the inconceivably appalling CGI that overtook that feature for a decidedly more low-tech approach in this simple spook show.

The film, which is bookended with an inexcusable modern epilogue, relates the tale of The Bell Witch haunting – although it strives to later redress the supernatural elements and offer a human explanation to the terrors.

In 1818, the Bell family of Red River, Tennessee experiences poltergeist activity – reputably set in motion due to a land deal gone wrong – which terrorizes daughter Betsy (PETER PAN’s Rachel Hurd-Wood) and is later responsible for the death of patriarch John (Donald Sutherland). Sissy Spacek rounds out the cast as the put upon wife and mother Lucy. This film is hardly a touchstone in the careers of Spacek and Sutherland who each seem to be sleepwalking through the proceedings. Rachel Hurd-Wood on the other hand provides an interestingly mature characterization of Betsy, despite being hampered at every turn by the films lack of discernable motivations.

As I mentioned before, Solomon, in order to either pad the running time or offer audiences some modern connection to the story, opens and closes the film with a decidedly unnecessary wraparound. This inclusion is tedious at best – at worst the ending is almost exploitative – attempting to link the filmmakers’ interpretation of the legend to a current family situation. Not only is it disorientating, it does disservice to what could have been a simple and classical ghost story.

The film also suffers from another major drawback; Solomon and cinematographer Adrian Biddle randomly swing the film from warm natural light to a wash of muted tones, eventually shifting the stock entirely to black and white at a shockingly uneven pace. I can only assume that they are illustrating the effects of the ghost’s presence on the surrounding reality, but at other times, when the film is clearly traveling along with the spirit, the filmmakers continue to employ the use of color. Having shot a virtual laundry list of brilliant films and garnering an Academy Award nomination for his work on THELMA AND LOUISE, I assume that Biddle had little to do with the stylistic decisions made in this respect – so blame falls squarely on Solomon once again.

The schizophrenic lighting scheme becomes almost anarchic as the camera spins around the house, darting in and out of the principal’s faces – Which brings up another point – Camera movement in this tale is clearly utilized to demonstrate the standpoint of the ghost. But the wild thrashing and hyper-realistic approach, at times, takes away from the simplicity of the story, – forcing the viewer to recognize the filmmakers at work. Overall, none of the effects and optical tricks are necessary to tell this tale, and their overuse in some situations and lack of fluidity in others are major drawbacks to the project’s overall feel.

AN AMERICAN HAUNTING made its theatrical debut as a PG-13 piece. The DVD arrives in an unrated edition – another moniker that has fast become nothing more insidious than a marketing tool – and includes – count ‘em – 4 alternate endings – each more tiresome than the last. Most of what you see in the alternate footage is still in the film, although by some miracle a “doll comes to life” ending was mercifully edited out. The rest is re-edited randomly throughout the final 15 minutes to reveal what Solomon, and co-writer/Bell Witch novelist Brent Monahan conceives as the true nature of the supernatural plague. The disc contains a few deleted scenes that do not add any real light to the story, but might have better served the film’s short running time by being left in anyway.

Solomon, never one to do things simply, opts to take his audio commentary on the road for a video track. However, watching the director drone on about the film while tooling around L.A. in his car might have been less jarring if Lionsgate had managed to have more of the movie on the screen than the slight “picture-in-picture” footage tucked away at the bottom. Frankly, I’ll never know, because at 1:00 am, I couldn’t stand the incessant rambling any longer and opted for bed.

The most interesting pieces on the disc are the Internet promos which once populated the films official website and MySpace page. This collection of – sometimes – laughable 3-minute bits try to offer up a morsel of the mystery behind the real Bell Witch at the same time they hype the filmed adaptation of the saga. Regardless of what you think about any of this ghost business, you’ve got to check out the spot on a real life paranormal investigator who can’t possibly realize how stupid he actually looks in his segment. For my money, those few minutes of footage were better than the hour and a half that I spent subjected to the horrors of film that preceded it.

I suspect that much like DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, AN AMERICAN HAUNTING had all the potential in the world to be a good movie. In fact, moments abound in the project that show some real filmmaking prowess. The problem is that those glimmers of hope are buried under an overabundance of filmmaking. A cursory glance at director Robert Wise’s 1963 version of Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING compared with Jan de Bont’s destruction of the same film in 1999. The diametric nature of those two films – like AN AMERICAN HAUNTING – is evidence enough that some filmmakers don’t know when to say when – and so far Courtney Solomon is proving to be one of those directors.

Official Score