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.