01/06/2006. Contributed by Frank Ochieng
Writer-director Courtney Solomon's flimsy fright fable An American Haunting couldn't scare a lobbyist from a Washington D.C. politician's picnic, finds Frank. Maybe that's because Solomon's supernatural snoozer has all the meditative vibe of a lemon-minted cough drop.
An American Haunting (2006)
Writer-director Courtney Solomon's ("Dungeons & Dragons") flimsy fright fable An American Haunting couldn't scare a lobbyist from a Washington D.C. politician's picnic. Maybe that's because Solomon's supernatural snoozer has all the meditative vibe of a lemon-minted cough drop. Relentlessly murky and atmospheric, An American Haunting is a sluggish period piece boofest that's heavy on the cliché-driven spooky sentiments but low on the imaginative quest for substantial thrills.
It's a crying shame that Solomon's nineteenth century goose bump ghost story drags more regularly than a defective bumper from your Aunt Gertrude's antique car. With the promising casting of such veteran performers as Donald Sutherland and Oscar-winning Sissie Spacek to compliment the true events of a sensationalistic story, An American Haunting should have been more chilling in its nostalgic mode. Instead, this staid terror tale feels boring and there's never any sense of genuine suspense since this flick looks so disjointed with its lacklustre special effects and incomprehensible symbolism.
When it comes to highlighting the whispering whims of the daunting afterlife, Solomon shows what a lightweight he is because the exposition delves into cheap-minded Poltergeist trickery. With intrusive cameras trying to awkwardly capture the intimacy of its periled surroundings, Solomon fails to stimulate the audience's alienation for the ghostly figures. Overall, this is a preposterous and muddled exorcise that invites more than its share of unintentional laughs. The shock value behind An American Haunting isn't so much the peek-a-boo antics of a bothersome spirit causing chaos to its human counterparts; it's the realization that lead stars Sutherland and Spacek signed up for this anaemically menacing sideshow.
Supposedly, An American Haunting tells the real life account of the early 19th-century Bell family of Red River, Tennessee and their traumatized trials and tribulations with a nagging ghost that resulted in the death of a family member. Obviously this case was unique in its own right because it marked the first time that a spooky spirit initiated the demise of a human being. It's just too bad that Solomon trivializes this stilted creaky dud that could have been startling in its shrivelled skin given the specialized premise.
Tucked away in an isolated wooded area as they're secluded in their roomy wooden home in 1818, prosperous land barons John and Lucy Bell (Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek) exist along with their children in teen Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and older John Jr. (Thom Fell). The Bells have their hands full with busybody Kate Batts (Gayle Brown), an intimidating bulky woman whose claim to some vast land clearly upsets the family.
Through mediation courtesy of the church's ruling, John Bell and his clan are granted the favourable decision. But as one can imagine, the embittered Kate isn't too thrilled with the well-to-do Bells' victory. Hence, she puts a "hex" on the Bells-particularly Papa John and baby girl Betsy-and lets the chips fall where they may. Soon, several isolated and unexplained incidents occur which understandably rattle the sensibilities of the Bell clan over time. Specifically, poor Betsy is haunted continuously as unknown evil forces (could it be Kate Batts' spiritual wrath?) threaten to unravel her shaken nerves to the point of no return.
Over the stretch of many years, we have seen a countless string of paranormal projects that range from the sublime to the supercilious. However, An American Haunting doesn't know quite where to fit in terms of its shoddy presentation. Loosely based on the Brent Monahan book that told of the Bell Witch legend, one would think that Solomon could capitalize on the sophistication of this validated historical happening in the U.S. where an entity was responsible for the eradication of a human being. Unfortunately, the translation of what should have been an exceptional surreal tingle has all the jittery appeal of an overflowing glass of milkshake.
It is difficult to pinpoint one particular element that cripples the fear factor of this starchy story. Could it be the relentless showcasing of the obligatory slammed doors, annoying screeching noise, choppy editing tactics and lazy plotting? Maybe it's the conventional approach of trying to create the empty-minded tension with an over-indulgent soundtrack, schizophrenic camera movements and random jump cuts?
Perhaps it is the lame attempt to package this nostalgically transparent "Exorcist" knockoff into a babbling edge-of-your-seat terrorizing tease with Biblical overtones thrown for respectability? How about the tiring visual mysteries involving imaginary creepy kids that overtake your sensory capacities? Whatever its undefined cutting edge intentions are for the sake of argument, all the shredded bed sheets and pillows (along with Betsy's irritating lungs) in the world cannot help An American Haunting overcome its meandering meagreness for schlock sensationalism.
It's safe to say that the viewers aren't really treated to the core of the matter-the investigative angle behind what made the Bell Witch theories so fascinating in its titillation. Solomon is too consumed with the synthetic theatrics to confront the real absorbing panicky platitudes behind this daunting dog and pony show. Throughout this convoluted scare session, Sutherland seems stiff and indifferent to the mundane material while Spacek can't quite shake her bland presence in this haphazard horror production. As the beleaguered Betsy, Hurd-Wood is up to the challenge but the script fails her miserably as a disoriented damsel-in-distress reduced to yelling at suggestive shadows that wouldn't startle a butterfly.
The participants in An American Haunting have a legitimate beef to be agitated by the generic goings-on of this laboured and lame jumpy vehicle-and you certainly cannot blame the manufactured spooks for this stale celluloid of paranoia either.
© 2006 Frank Ochieng