Despite nocturnal scrapings, shufflings, general bumpings in the night, not to mention several rounds of people getting smacked around by unseen hands, AN AMERICAN HAUNTING is just a whole lot of nothing going on. Not wanting to leave well enough or, rather, creepy enough, alone, the filmmakers have taken a fairly well-documented and completely unexplained case of the paranormal, the Bell witch haunting of 1817-18, and ascribed to it a reason obviously designed to shock the sensibilities of even a modern audience. After all the hoopla, though, it plays as a cheat. A few bookending scenes, in which the family in the present venture into an off-limits attic, only adds to the sense of a last-minute kludge tacked on to make the whole thing seem relevant.
A manuscript discovered in that attic tells the story. The hauntings began at the Bell home in Tennessee shortly after Mr. Bell (Donald Sutherland), a pillar of the community and model husband and father, is revealed by a church court to have engaged in usury against a crotchety neighbor with the all too appropriate surname of Batts. Though she wins the day in court, she doesn’t get everything that she wants and so throws a curse in Bell’s face, promising wrack and ruin, especially against his pretty adolescent daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood, cherry-lipped but otherwise unremarkable). It starts with a wolf that isn’t there, ominous sounds on the roof, and builds to Betsy being dragged out of bed and smacked around while dangling in mid-air. This last is witnessed by the terrified Bell family, who, failing to find surcease of sorrow by invoking the Bible, turn to Professor Powell (James D’Arcy) the local schoolmaster on whom Betsy has a crush that may or may not be returned in kind. His attempts to find a cause that is of this world fails, of course, amid exploding Bibles and the usual tropes of shattering glass, splintering furniture, and humans screaming in the presence of the unexplained.
Both Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, as Mrs Bell, do a fine job, particularly Spacek, who has that wonderful homespun mix of maternal warmth and ferocity when it comes to alternately comforting and trying to protect her daughter against whatever it is that’s come calling for her. Sutherland, looking more leonine than ever, complements Spacek in a paternal way, and he suffers grandly when the spirit begins to snipe at him as well. Also very good are the production values, from the excellent cinematography to the authentic look of the piece. It’s the script itself that fails and there is no exorcising that particular demon.
What may have been intended as atmospheric tension comes across as less creepy than peculiar. The pace is plodding, making what happens interesting in a mildly diverting way, but never riveting and certainly never terrifying. When the entity keeps pulling Betsy’s quilt off of her in the middle of the night, it seems annoying, not scary. Even when things pick up a little steam with a demon’s-eye view of a hunt across the countryside after a fleeing Bell, it’s too little too late. The audience is in as much of a stupor as poor Betsy Bell, who hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in so long that she’s falling asleep in school and is unfazed by the creepy little girl in the oversized sunbonnet that only she can see.
A postscript acknowledges that some of what is depicted in AN AMERICAN HAUTNING is made up, but doesn’t specify what. This is another cheat, adding insult to injury as it leaves a bad taste on top of a dull 91 minutes.