An American Haunting (PG-13) ★★★

Review Date: May 8th, 2006

Without gore and cheap scare tactics, An American Haunting is a well-told tale based on the much-documented legend of the Bell Witch in Tennessee.


Set in 1818, something evil is going on in the Bell’s family house. The trouble begins after a land deal John Bell (Donald Sutherland) and his neighbor Kate Batts (Gaye Brown) are involved in goes awry. She blames John for her misfortunes and curses his whole family. Townsfolk think Batts practices witchcraft and when it turns out she has kept pieces of their clothing, suspicion rises even more. A religious leader (Matthew Marsh) and the local schoolteacher (James D'Arcy) set out to figure out the truth but have very different ideas about what is causing the nightmares and possession of young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood). But when Betsy's nightmares get more intense and violent--when Bible pages fly out of the book and Betsy gets dragged hair-first up the stairs in front of them all--the family matriarch Lucy (Sissy Spacek) sternly asks, ''Now, are we all just having nightmares, Professor?''


Veteran talents Sutherland and Spacek have some of the scariest movies ever on their resumes. Sutherland was plenty creepy in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, while Spacek got her first Oscar nomination as Carrie. Even if there isn't much to say, these two easily convey a lot of emotion, fear and empathy with just a side glance or a raised eyebrow. The movie, however, wouldn't work without a beautiful innocent girl. Hurd-Wood is as magical in this gritty role as she was as Wendy Darling in the recent live-action Peter Pan. Her looks of horror and violation seem as real as if they were actually happening. The few people who saw the Exorcist prequel may recognize D'Arcy as the priest in it, and his role is just as aloof and emotionless. He's a fine British actor and accomplishes a decent Southern accent, but he comes across like a Brit who is stuck in a Southern town, and frankly, he is.


Writer/director Courtney Solomon certainly knows how to weave a nice yarn. He's taken an old legend that was apparently witnessed by Andrew Jackson (before he became president), and tells it as if he was sitting around a campfire and spinning a great spooky story. A previous version of the film made it through the festival circuits about a year ago but had a very different ending. It’s the version playing in England right now, actually. But with the American release, Solomon took some advice and made some adjustments. Framed within a modern-day family living in the Bell house, which flashes back to the period story, its a gothic ghost story that doesn't jump out at you but instead seeps into your bones and chills you from within. And there’s nothing gross or offensive about it.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.