Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Review of AN AMERICAN HAUNTING By Bethany Ruthven

Good evening, darlings, and thank you for reading. The other MonsterGrrls and I would like very much to welcome you to our 31 Days Of Halloween, in which all of us will log in each day through the month of October to bring you various news, reviews and other items connected with this most wonderful time of the year. We're kicking off today with a review of a movie from 2006, An American Haunting, which, ostensibly enough, was released on our Mad Doctor's birthday that year.

An American Haunting is not so much a retelling as a reimagining of an old American
folktale, the Bell Witch of Tennessee. In 1817, the family home of John Bell in Robertson County, Tennessee, was haunted by inexplicable noises and poltergeist-like manifestations which were thought to be the work of a ghost, the spirit of a woman named Kate Batts. The spirit took particular delight in tormenting the Bells' youngest daughter Betsy (shown at right), and it is from this tale that Haunting takes its meat.

In the movie, John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is taken to Church court for the theft of Kate Batts' land, and let off lightly by the judges. Known in the village for claims of witchery, the offended Batts (Gaye Brown) tells him to enjoy his good health and the health of his family while he can, an admonition that takes a dark turn when strange manifestations begin to pop up around his home (including the by-now customary Frighteningly Symbolic Evil-Looking Child, played here by Madalina Stan). Many of the spooky occurrences seem to be focused around the Bells' teenage daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood, who also plays the disembodied voice of the Bell Witch), who bears the brunt of the haunting at the beginning. When the manifestations escalate into Betsy levitating from her bed, it becomes apparent that the Bells have a ghost on their hands. As John Bell slowly loses his mind and the family desperately tries to hold together during the gathering darkness, it becomes very apparent that the ghost may not be in fact a manifestation of the restless dead, but a different manifestation entirely--an entity created by Betsy Bell in order for her and her mother Lucy (Sissy Spacek) to remember an evil secret.

The movie is well-made but flawed, mostly due to its predilection that there was actually no ghost. Insteand of truly exploring the legend of the Bell Witch, the story is made into a rather spooky psychodrama by attempting to explain the "haunting" as a psychological manifestation of child abuse. While the actors all perform their parts well and the movie spins a decent yarn (including some very atmospheric and frightening scenes), once the spooks are explained away by the filmmakers' additions to the tale, it degenerates from a scarefest into some rather standard ruminations on The Evil That Families Do that sort of becomes an Early American version of Flowers In The Attic. An opening thread set in modern times concerning a troubled mother and daughter's discovery of artifacts from the Bell Witch hauntings, which bookends the movie and tries to create a 'shock' ending, does not help much either. I would have much preferred to see the original story as written down, performed as a 'period' horror movie of sorts. Still, the movie looks good, so I would recommend this for an off-evening, but not as the main feature of a Halloween celebration. Save only the best films in your collection for that, and for heaven's sake do avoid those godawful Freddy and Jason slasher films. Not Halloweeny at all, I'm sure. As for this, better luck next time.

A well-made and fairly acted film that is heavy-handed in its execution and tries to explore modern evil by unsatisfactory means. Not for kids, but the slowness of the film will ensure that they won't want to watch anyway.

I extend special thanks to Mr. Bob Collins, a friend of our Mad Doctor's who suggested this film for review quite a while ago. Do enjoy, darling, and we do apologize for being so late with this.

Bethany Ruthven