An American Haunting Review
First, let's deal with the title. An American Haunting is not about a haunting. A haunting requires the presence of a ghost and there's no ghost in this film. There is a supernatural entity but it's not the spirit of a dead person. It may be a demon or a poltergeist or the product of witchcraft or telekinesis. It may be a combination of those things. I'll leave it up to you to interpret the ending. Now that my pedantry is satisfied, on to the film.
An American Haunting is based on one of the most famous tales of the supernatural ever recounted: the legend of the Bell Witch. (Yes, it did help inspire the fictional Blair Witch). According to the legend, between 1817 and 1821, members of the Bell family of Red River, Tennessee were tormented by an invisible presence. At first the presence merely scared them with unexplained noises but over time its strength grew and its behaviour became violent. John Bell (played here by Donald Sutherland) and his teenage daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) were both physically attacked many times. The entity became known as the Bell Witch. John believed it had been unleashed on his family by a local woman called Kate Batts, with whom he had a property dispute.
This is fascinating subject matter and it could have inspired an intelligent and frightening horror film. Sadly it hasn't. Google the Bell Witch and you'll read a far more interesting tale than this Amityville Horror clone in period dress. The Witch itself has been changed from a complex being with malignant tendencies into just another furniture-tossing demon. The legend's more interesting wrinkles have been ironed out. While the Witch did torment John and Betsy, it liked John's wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) and even cared for her when she became sick. It could speak fluently - not the clichéd rasping in the movie - and it would sing and recite bible verses for visitors (these included future American president Andrew Jackson). It even chose a husband for Betsy!
Instead of tackling the Witch's complexity and its love-hate relationship with the Bells, the movie opts for the obvious bump-in-the-night stuff, indifferent to how many times we've seen movies about entities slamming doors and flinging people around. Director Courtney Solomon, whose only previous credit is the atrocious Dungeons And Dragons, turns up the scary music and lays the cheap scares on thick. He even stoops to using the "it was only a dream" gambit (repeatedly), a sure sign of desperation. Solomon also wrote the script, based on a book by Brent Monahan, so he must take full responsibility for the film's shortcomings.
The biggest is the ending, which changes the story in a way I found tasteless and a little disturbing. There's a revelation about one of the characters that has no basis in fact or in the Bell Witch legend. There is indeed a theory that poltergeist activity might have the cause the movie suggests but for a film to portray a real person in such a negative way, even one who's been dead for nearly two hundred years, is offensive. If the Bell family has descendants who are alive today, the producers might be looking at a libel suit.