Best to take a cushion to hide behind
MANY OF you will have heard the story of the Bell family of Red River, Tennessee, who were mysteriously terrorised by a supernatural entity in 1818. With countless books written on the topic, and a town that still lives in fear of the spirit’s return, it’s only natural that, An American Haunting has been glamourised and brought to the cinema. The film tells the story of the only documented case in US history, in which a spirit caused a person’s death. It sounds terrifying enough, but does its portrayal on the big screen do it justice?
Don’t be put off by the fact that director Courtney Solomon’s only other feature film was 2000’s mediocre Dungeons & Dragons. An American Haunting might as well be from an entirely different filmmaker. It’s an energetic ghost story that, while not perfect, hits all the right buttons. Although not a true horror film, in the sense that it makes you jump out of your seat, the sinister exploration into the terrors of childhood are bound to give some viewers nightmares.
After a gratuitous contemporary prologue, the action starts at Red River, Tennessee in 1818, where Lucy Bell (Spacek) and her husband Tom (Sutherland), hear noises in their attic and on their roof. The following day, John has an appointment in court, presided over by the church elders. He’s found guilty of breaking church law and committing usury against a neighbour. The woman in question, who has the reputation of being a witch, isn’t happy, and curses him.
Inevitably, strange things start to happen in the household, especially to Betsy (Hurd-Wood). She’s tormented, beaten and battered in her bedroom by forces unseen.
Between them, the family glimpse a black wolf and a young girl, and start to hear voices more and more often. Richard Powell (D’Arcy), the local schoolteacher, who has a soft spot for Betsy, is brought in and, despite all the witnesses insisting to the contrary says, “there must be a rational explanation”, believing it’s just the vindictive neighbour sending her slaves to trick and trouble them. Then he sees the supernatural activity for himself.
In terms of direction, the film is effective throughout, especially the use of flashback devices at the end, which build towards a shocking final scene, summing-up the socially relevant message Soloman is trying to convey. He uses all the tricks in the book, such as sudden edits, dramatic music cues, atmospheric lighting, intense sound design and prowling camera movements, which together provide a real supernatural edge.
The film provides more scares and shivers than most recent haunting movies. The fact that it features actors of the calibre of Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek also bolsters the endeavour, while young Hurd-Wood does a convincing job as the tormented teen.