The hard-core "jump-scare" crowd may well succumb to "An American Haunting," but auds who prefer their screamfests to be something more than nerve-wracking will avoid this Federalist-era "Exorcist" like a case of demonic possession. Look for some theatrical, thanks to the weight of the cast, but a limited lifespan.

The hard-core “jump-scare” crowd may well succumb to “An American Haunting,” but auds who prefer their screamfests to be something more than nerve-wracking will avoid this Federalist-era “Exorcist” like a case of demonic possession. Look for some theatrical, thanks to the weight of the cast, but a limited lifespan, due to an uncertainty about its audience: The fright quotient is strictly for the slumber-party crowd, but the plot payoff is about sexual abuse and incest. 

Sissy Spacek are John and Lucy Bell, land-owning 1817 Tennesseans and parents of the nubile Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and the stalwart John Jr. (Thom Fell). When John Sr. is found guilty of loan-sharking by his fellow churchmen, the victim of his greed apparently puts a curse on the family; shortly thereafter young Betsy starts having nightmares of the Elm Street variety.

Based on Brent Monahan’s novel, “The Bell Witch: An American Haunting” — which was itself based on what is apparently the only known case in which the U.S. government acknowledged a death by supernatural forces — “American Haunting” is a difficult film to get a grip on. The opening seems almost satiric — a young girl runs through the woods pursued by something she can’t escape and we can’t see, the p.o.v. shifting from stalker to prey. Then the girl wakes up: She is a descendant of the Bells, and a letter left for her mother flashes back the action nearly 200 years.

Writer-director Courtney Solomon seems to have been undecided whether or not to make a comedy: The acting is so arch, the mannerisms so deliberate, that they send up not only satanic-possession thrillers but post-Revolutionary America in general. Sutherland is an anachronismadopting neither the inflections nor formal manner of his co-stars. But then John Bell is a man alone, whose sins will be the undoing of his family.

Solomon is particularly enamored of rapidly burning candles to signify fleeting time; scratch marks left by fingernails dragged demonically across painted pinewood floors. Betsy gets thrown around like a ragdoll during her many screaming nightmares.

There are moments of comedy relief. One night, when the attic sounds like it’s full of elephants, Lucy Bell, deadpan, asks her husband: “Squirrels?” James D’Arcy plays the local teacher and all-around authority Richard Powell with conviction, but Richard’s skepticism about Betsy’s possession becomes a bit hard to swallow, especially after half the town has seen her dangling from the rafters with her face getting slapped, as if by the disembodied spirit of Moe Howard.

A well-made, good-looking movie it is, but between the non-stop tumult and the sense of deliberateness about its period authenticity, “An American Haunting” produces a lot of screaming, crying and cruelty, but not much drama.

An American Haunting

Production

An Allan Zeman presentation of a Christopher Milburn production, in association with Midsummer Films, Remstar Films, SC MediaPro Pictures and After Dark Films. Produced by Courtney Solomon, Christopher Milburn, Andre Rouleau. Executive producers, Allen Zeman, Robbie Little, Lawrence Steven Meyers, Simon Frands, Zygi Kamasa, Maxime Remillard, Nelson Leong. Co-producer, Andrei Boncea. Directed, written by Courtney Solomon, based on the novel "The Bell Witch: An American Haunting" by Brent Monahan.

Crew

Camera (color), Adrian Biddle; editor, Richard Comeau; music, Caine Davidson; production designer, Humphrey Jaeger; costume designer, Jane Petrie; sound designer, Ed Douglas; supervising sound editor, Michel B. Bordeleau; visual effects supervisors, Simon Carr, Simon Frame; special effects coordinator, Nick Allder; associate producer, Alessandro Fracassi; casting, Gary Davy. Reviewed at AFI Los Angeles Film Festival, Nov. 5, 2005. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

John Bell - Donald Sutherland Lucy Bell - Sissy Spacek Betsy Bell - Rachel Hurd-Wood Richard Powell - James D'Arcy James Johnston - Matthew Marsh John Jr. - Thom Fell

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