'American Haunting': Boo! Hiss

Boo: Sissy Spacek, with Rachel Hurd-Wood, can't save the day from poltergeists in the cliched
Boo: Sissy Spacek, with Rachel Hurd-Wood, can't save the day from poltergeists in the cliched "American Haunting." (After Dark Films)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 6, 2006

"An American Haunting," a movie about poltergeists and people screaming in 19th-century costumes, wants to exude the scary B-movie ethos of films like "Night of the Living Dead" and "The Blair Witch Project," going for those herky-jerky camera movements, as if the filmmakers were too terrified to keep a steady grip.

It also wants you to think about, and shiver over, the supposedly real events on which it's based: In Tennessee during the 1800s, an evil spirit is said to have traumatized a certain John Bell and his family, and Bell's death was attributed to the spirit's relentless harassment. (Andrew Jackson is rumored to have visited their farm for sightings of this "Bell Witch.")

You may recall that the 1999 fictional "Blair Witch Project" "documented" the disappearance of three student filmmakers in the Burkittsville woods of Maryland. The film purported to be found footage, made by the doomed students in their final days. And those wobbly camera movements, along with the actors' clumsy, hesitant performances, further suggested an authenticity.

But "American Haunting" co-writer and director Courtney Solomon (his sole credit before this: producing and directing "Dungeons & Dragons") tries -- and fails -- to evoke that whoa-did-this-really-happen edge. That shaky camera just feels contrived. And those subjective swoops -- like we're watching from the demon's own point of view, sort of a Marauding Spirit Cam -- are repeated so often, they become unintentionally comic. You're not sure whether the characters are running away from a ghost or some deranged cameraman who keeps bursting into people's homes and yelling, "I'm a ghost with a camera! Whoooo!"

It's unfortunate that the freakiest factor about the film is its source material -- a subject that has inspired more than a dozen books. It certainly isn't Donald Sutherland, whose rendition of Bell in post-bellum attire and a bleached virtual-fright wig, is significantly less than scary. Oh, let's just say it: He's funny.

The Canadian actor, who has chewed scenery through other horror flicks (remember "The Puppet Masters"? Otherworldly slugs land on Earth and control our minds?), pulls out all the thespian stops, with a Tennessee drawl and perpetually widened eyes. His over-the-top theatrics undercut Solomon's efforts to create that bona-fide creepy experience.

Bell's wife Lucy is played by Sissy Spacek, no stranger to horror, of course, thanks to her superb role as the tortured schoolgirl in "Carrie." Although she's a more believable presence than Sutherland, she's reduced to well-meaning, wifely support, running to comfort whomever is screaming or yelling at the time. Most of the time that's her daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), another recipient of this dark spirit's assault and battery.

And though he may be going for that B-movie style, Solomon also reaches for the groan-inducing cliches of mainstream movies. Did he have to use "Psycho"-like screechy violin effects for that one climactic scene? And is he unaware that disembodied kiddie voices have cluttered seemingly every Hollywood horror film of the past 20 years? It doesn't help, either, that Hurd-Wood appears to channel Linda Blair from "The Exorcist" as she screams, flails and writhes on her bed. (At one point, she's practically Winnie-the-Pooh, as the spirit drags her up the stairs like a malevolent Christopher Robin.) This confusion of tropes and general hokum makes us root for the wrong resolution: for the spirit to take care of business -- in other words, for evil to deliver us from our own.

An American Haunting (83 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for terror sequences and adult themes.

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