Movie Review
An American Haunting
Director: Courtney Solomon
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Rachel Hurd-Wood

at one point in An American Haunting, Donald Sutherland’s character, John Bell, places the barrel of a pistol against his temple in an effort to release the vexing curse that has been tormenting his family. Taking his own life, he believes, will spare his family from any further anguish. The pistol, however, has been empted of its bullets by the roguish poltergeist responsible for the Bell family’s torment, at which point Sutherland’s character falls to the ground in pained exasperation. Clearly, both Sutherland and his character are fatigued, if for no other reason than the relentlessly, tedious haunting in An American Haunting—or more aptly titled An Incessantly, Over-Long, Incomprehensible Haunting. But anyways, we should continue…

Based on the only documented case in American history of an actual haunting resulting in a person’s death, the film recounts, if only tangentially, the disputed legend of the Bell Witch. As the story goes, sometime in the early decades of the 19th century, the prosperous Bell Family settled in the frontier town of Red River, Tennessee, where they quickly acclimatized to their surroundings and forged meaningful relationships with the civic and business community. Their only misfortune, it turns out, was the ill-fated business deal that they entered into with Kate Batts, a woman of disreputable character who was also wildly suspected of being a witch. When the deal inevitably went bad, Batts reportedly put a curse on the Bell family, and in the days, months, and years that followed, a fitful wraith began haunting their home. The hauntings, among the other stock aberrations that poltergeists’ entail (creaking doors, disagreeable furniture moves), consisted of the Bells’ daughter, Betsy, being dragged from her bed, levitated (but where else?) in mid-air, and repeatedly slapped. In some variations of the story, it was only after Batts’s death that the hauntings began; in others, the hauntings are contemporaneous with the lifespan of Batts, who, it is claimed, ended up outliving John Bell.

And stranger still, some accounts suggest that the apparition was in fact Kate Batts, initially meting out her revenge, but slowly, and bizarrely enough, developing a cordial relationship with the Bell family. Indeed, Kate Batts as apparition started carrying on regular conversations with the family, favoring the matriarch, Lucy Bell, the most, even being as gracious as to gathering walnuts for her while she had taken ill. In an episode sure to flummox antebellum historians, future president Andrew Jackson, fascinated by the stories of the Kate Batts hauntings, made a stop-over at the Bell’s home to have his own edifying conversations with the apparition.

If this sounds too much like fanciful apocrypha—it is. In 1894, struggling writer/journalist Martin Van Buren Ingram concocted An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch of Tennessee, an attempt at the fabrication qua non-fiction genre so popular today. Part fact (the names mostly) but primarily fiction (everything else), the title begged for a credulity it didn’t deserve. (It’s even doubtful that Ingram’s fiction was his own, given that he may have borrowed from the jejune diary of a far removed Bell relative) Consequently, the ephemera that the Bell Witch mythology has spawned have been constructed on an edifice of mendacities, some innocent and innocuous, others flat-out pernicious and greedy. Which is all just a long way of saying, the film should give up any pretensions of authenticity.

How Sutherland and Spacek were sold on this movie, or duped—a movie directed by no less a character than that guy behind Dungeons and Dragons, Courtney Solomon—is anybody’s guess. But anyways, we get through the initial boilerplate plot-points briskly enough. That John Bell has entered into contract with a woman widely acknowledge as being a witch, that he has charged her twenty-percent interest on a loan (egregiously above what Church canon stipulates), doesn’t exactly draw my sympathy for his family’s eventual suffering. But anyways, the curse is placed and the Bell’s home begins creaking and cracking, hissing and shrieking, all in plausibly creepy falsettos. Amorphous scepters race atop their roof; vulpine creatures materialize and vanish outside there home; the aforementioned apparition begins visiting and wantonly harming Betsy Bell (a puzzled if winsome Rachel Hurd-Wood).

Thankfully, the hauntings are explained away by our learned man of Letters and Science, Richard McDowell (James D’Arcy)—Betsy’s teacher and requited crush—who sees them as natural, though odd, physical phenomena that have been too invested in irrationally superstitious religiosity. (Though Haunting shouldn’t be mistaken for a meditation on Religion v. Science, since it’s anything but.) But anyways, the hauntings continue, or, more appropriately, persist. McDowell consequently grows convinced of their materiality and inexplicability. One problem, though: When do the hauntings stop to allow the narrative to unfold? Never.

The movie, to be sure, transforms into an impressionistic recapitulation of the same night’s haunting perpetually collapsing in on itself: An unintelligible Sisyphean feat of exasperating proportions. Sutherland’s John Bell can be forgiven, nay, applauded, for wanting to take his own life. Sissy Spacek, likewise, is forever vouchsafed by dint of Badlands. (But still!) The hauntings in An American Haunting are insistent, merciless, loud, foolish, and at last, tiresomely ubiquitous to the point of somnolence. No need for a spoiler here, since that assumes the movie progresses from one point to another—which it doesn’t. This is a film that could theoretically go on forever, but courtesy of an artless PSA stab at an ending, it doesn’t.
So, let us jettison, or hold in abeyance, our impenetrable secular humanism, my agnostic and atheist brethren. Fall to your knees with me and pray, just this once, that Courtney Solomon, wherever he is right now, stops reading or writing or revising that script, that he quits putting together that treatment, that he, for the love of all that is humane in us (or that which still remains), lets go of that fully-baked idea, and gets out of the business of making movies immediately; or, failing this, pray that the earth beneath him gives way, that the ground swallow him whole. But anyways.

An American Haunting is in theaters across the country now.

By: Ron Mashate
Published on: 2006-05-23
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