Period Drama Horror
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An American Haunting (2006)
27th Apr 06
An allegedly true story tells of the demonic possession of the Bell family in 1818 which made US History when the court of Tennessee ruled that supernatural forces were responsible for the death of a man.
With the US studios running out of Japanese ghost story movies to remake it was only a matter of time before the possesion flick was resurrected. Back in the mid 70s the subgenre was big business - kickstarted by the phenomenal success of The Exorcist and encompassing big-budget schlockers like The Amityville Horror, The Omen series and Audrey Rose.
Hot on the heels of last years Exorcism of Emily Rose, An American Haunting arrived with much fanfare, a spooky trailer and two heavyweights in the cast. Decent early notices and an effective trailer suggested a classy spook-fest in the great tradition of American ghost stories like Jack Clayton's The Innocents, Robert Wise's classic The Haunting, The Sixth Sense and The Others. So how does it hold up?
On first inspection the ingredients would appear to be all in place. In Spacek and Sutherland we get two respected, highly watchable veterans who both bring strong reps in classic horror (with Don’t Look Now, Body Snatchers and Carrie in their respective CVS). The hook too is unimpeachable stuff – a close knit, respectable family have their early 19th century home taken over by a vengeful, invisible entity that no-one – even the local exorcist – can shift. And all based - as the poster gleefully points out – on apparently ‘true’ events.
Those events are part of Tennessee folklore and form the basis of the book which writer/director Courtney Solomon appears to have taken as gospel. “The Bell Witch: An American Haunting" is an account of the demonic possession of the home of the family of John Bell, a prosperous farmer in the town of Adams around 1818. The case made US History - with the court of Tennessee ruling that supernatural forces were responsible for the death of a man.
The Bell family were apparently visited by an unknown presence that initially haunted the whole family before mounting a brutal attack on the Bell’s youngest daughter Betsy. Subjecting her to standard demonic possession treatment - slappings, being dragged by the hair, thrown round her room etc - the spirit remained unseen to all, with patriarch John Bell believing a local woman (handily branded a witch) to be responsible for the curse as a result of a land dispute. But the truth turned out to be much closer to home.
OK - some positive things first. AAH has some first rate location work, with Romanian locales filling in for 19th century Tennessee and the crisp cinematography by the late Adrian Biddle (who shot the similarly good looking but abysmal V for Vendetta) gives the film an effective, expensive look well beyond its budget.
The apparent absence of digital effects means there’s a refreshing reliance on traditional filming technique - a classical approach, drawing on practical on-camera effects rather than CGI. Atmospheric, muted lighting keeps the visual tone consistent throughout - even during potentially problematic nighttime interior sequences.
This is all very well of course if the stuff you’re lighting – the drama itself - is remotely interesting. The problem is that the tropes of this genre are so well known and the old grab bag of possesion scare tactics is looking very threadbare indeed. Put simply the narrative arc of AAH simply isn’t interesting enough to be anything more than a rather feeble retread of vastly superior films of this genre. Whereas a truly impressive work like The Others manages the tricky feat of pulling off its austere, chilly and mannered approach without slipping into schlocky bathos, AAH aims for the same stately, respectable seriousness and simply fumbles on every level.
Perhaps Solomon was unsure of how to approach such shop worn material. A tone of uncertainty is apparent right from the opening sequence, itself part of the film’s contemporary wraparound, which frankly scuppers the movie right from the beginning. An all too familiar horror opening in which a young girl running through woodland is chased by an unseen enemy - shaky POV shifting from stalker to prey - turns out to be (groan) a bad dream. The girl is a direct descendent of the Bell family and an old letter discovered by her mother flashes back the action nearly 200 years. Only by the end do we realise this bookend sequence reveals the films wannabe M. Night style twist - but most viewers should have it rumbled long before the bizarrely bad taste Elm Street-esque coda.
Solomon’s interest and love for this material is not in any doubt and it was obviously his heartfelt intention to make a non-sensationalistic ghost film. To be honest though it might not have been a bad idea to schlock things up a bit as AAH simply isn't bold, exciting or remotely frightening.
There just isn't anything new or shocking here - once the attacks on Lucy begin they are basically shown in the same manner each time. However, Solmon does prove himself to be a master of the modern phenomenon I like to call Dolby horror - where fear is elicited from the viewer simply by virtue of having their ears assaulted by frequent VERY LOUD NOISES on the soundtrack.
And what of the performances? Young Rachel Hurd Wood aquits herself relatively well as Betsy - when she isnt spinning around the bedroom - but the other cast are variable and to be honest neither of the leads emerges with much credit - Sutherland just carves up the ham as John and Spacek actually looks quite bored .
In the interest of fairness I will say this - the preview audience I saw the film with appeared to be (mostly) scared shitless by this film and jumped in all the right Dolby assisted places. Perhaps what you have just read are the tired grumblings of an aged and – currently rather jaded - horror fan. I’m sure AAH will play quite well with an undemanding multiplex audience or the casual DVD renter lured in by a scary looking poster and a starry cast. But EMB readers beware. Those of you looking for genuine scares may find this haunting almost totally lacking in spirit.