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An American Haunting

An American Haunting

Rated PG-13, 91 min. Directed by Courtney Solomon. Starring Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Hurd-Wood, James D'Arcy, Matthew Marsh.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 12, 2006

It's great fun to see the onetime Capt. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce running about in a period costume and a fright wig that makes him look like a cross between X-Men Wolverine and Beast, but where Sutherland really excels in this supposedly true story is in those moments where his early 19th-century Tennesseean, John Bell, glimpses something – a shadow, a flicker, possibly Maj. Frank Burns – out of the corner of his eye. Sutherland long ago mastered the art of looking unperturbed and horrified at the same time. His perpetually furrowed countenance is equal parts Elisha Cook Jr. (particularly in William Castle's House on Haunted Hill) and that crazy rummy from down the street who hollers at the air all day long, but the look we catch, several times, in American Haunting is straight out of Nicolas Roeg's Venetian double-take, Don't Look Now. American Haunting, helmed by Dungeons & Dragons' Solomon, also concerns a man seeking to reclaim his daughter from the forces of darkness, but – and this is key, people – not being either a Roeg production or sporting an "R" rating, there's no tussle in the bedclothes with Julie Christie (although there are plenty of bedsheets flying around on their own). I thought about this quite a bit while watching Sutherland scowl, flinch, and react to unseen horrors, and I'm pretty sure he did, too. No such luck. Based on the only recorded case in American history in which "a spirit caused the death of a man," and also in part on author Brent Monaghan's highly fictionalized account of said events in his book The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, Solomon's American Haunting has John Bell, wife Lucy (Spacek), son John Jr. (Thom Fell), and daughter Betsy (Hurd-Wood) being bedknobbed and broomsticked to bejesus and back by phantom or phantoms unknown after John Sr. rooks a witch in a shady property deal. (It's a peculiar comfort of sorts to realize that even in the dark bowers of 1818 Tennessee reasonably well-off landowners could be counted on to swindle their local cat ladies.) Of course, in the pre-Poltergeist/Amityville days of yore, there were precious few spectral light shows (and instances of Zelda Rubenstein were virtually unheard of), and so the Bells are afflicted with a more down-home brand of fearfulness, including but not limited to furniture and bedsheet tomfoolery, uninvited amorous advances toward Betsy, and, eventually, death. Which would lead one to believe that this should be gripping, spookifying cinema. Well, no. Thanks in no small part to cinematographer Adrian Biddle's murky camerawork (for some genuinely eye-opening Biddle-work, check out V for Vendetta), which leaves the whole production – and it is a production – looking like the night scenes in Barry Lyndon after all the candles went out. Still, it really is fun to watch yet another oddball turn by Sutherland, and a marginally restrained one from Spacek. It's just not that fun.
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