May 11, 2006

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An American Haunting (PG-13)
Early 1800s Tennessee is boo-scary for the Bell family in An American Haunting, a based-on-a-true-haunting tale.

It's nice, though, that even in 19th-century Tennessee things that go bump in the night followed the convention of focusing in on a teenage girl and going after her when she was in her skimpies. Ah, continuity.

The girl in this case is Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood), an effervescent girl who is trying to decide whether to focus her young affections on her smart and handsome teacher or the easier-to-control local boy. Her dad, John Bell (Donald Sutherland), is something of a town elder and, along with mom Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), the family enjoys a happy and prosperous 1818 life.

Naturally, that doesn't last long. John is soon taken to court by a woman with whom he had some sort of land/money-loaning agreement. This woman, Kate Batts (Gaye Brown) is rumored to be a witch. That, however, is not a good enough reason to charge her 20 percent interest and the court decides more or less in her favor. The less part — that John gets to keep the money from the wood he harvested on her land — cheeses her off enough. The mark of usury is not enough, she says to John and then makes vague threats about the health and happiness of him and his daughter.

Shortly thereafter, John starts to see things (wolves, mostly) and the whole family starts to hear weird moans and cries coming from the direction of the roof. Then Betsy begins to sense strange things in her room — at first this presence just pulls her covers off. Soon, it escalates to yanking her hair, slapping her around and appearing to all but choke her.

The family calls in a friend who performs a sort of Protestant exorcism (essentially, reading loudly from the bible) and the teacher, who doesn't really do anything but witness the spookery and confirm that the whole family hasn't just gone mad but that creepy evil things are indeed happening.

The film is narrated by a letter written by Lucy to her daughter Betsy and read by a modern-day mother living in a house on the Bells' land. The daughter finds the letter and Betsy's doll in the attic (which is odd, as the house seems completely structurally different than the Bell's house, but this is only one of the film's inconsistent aspects) and is plagued by nightmares of being chased by evil similar to nightmares that plague Betsy.

What does it all mean?

The movie — which starts strong with plenty of ye olde wilderness scary but then gets bogged down in a whole lot of haunting and not enough explaining — slaps on an explanation at the end for the ghostiness that ties the Bells and the modern-day family together. The explanation is weak, weak even though it comes after a weak hour of a movie that can't seem to decide how supernatural it wants its supernaturalness to be and then (after it goes off in the realm of "very supernatural") what it wants the spirit's (or whatever's) goals to be with the haunting. After suggesting that "maybe it's witches," the movie leaves the storytelling to the ham-fisted narration and to the CGI that allows the ghost to break glass and pull hair. The ghost first seems evil and then mischievous and then vengeful but is also maybe none of these things. Like so many things, creepy isn't as creepy if it's unfocused.

The muddled story and some seriously indifferent acting help to sink a movie that, rather than keep you up nights, is an Ambien-free way of inducing sleep. D


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