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Saturday, May 06, 2006

An American Haunting

—1. Overview
—2. Cast and Crew
—3. Photo Pages
—4. Trailers, Clips, DVDs, Books, Soundtrack
—5. Posters (Horror Movies)
—6. Production Notes (pdf)
—7. Spiritual Connections
—8. Presentation Downloads

Growing up in Johnson City, Tennessee, I was rooted in the Americana storytelling tradition: Jonesboro, Tennessee’s oldest town and neighbor to Johnson City, is the home of the International Storytelling Festival. So I had heard the stories of the Bell Witch for years and was excited to hear about An American Haunting and its excellent cast.

You would think that the talented ensemble, including Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, and Rachel Hurd-Wood, would be enough to scare the hell out of people. And that the story, rooted in history, would have enough for the director to put together a contemporary masterpiece. Well, I've learned one thing over the years attending movies and that's not to think too much.

Or talk too much. At my particular theater, the audience was mostly kids between the 6th and 8th grade who talked through the entire movie. To the theater's credit, the ushers ended up escorting 9 of them out. Unfortunately, they didn't remove the ones sitting directly behind me.

As for the movie itself, it was a huge letdown. The horror scenes resembled The Exorcist more than a ghost story. The actors did all they could with what they had, but somewhere on the cutting room floor is a great story the viewer doesn't get to see.

Instead, An American Haunting tells The Bell Witch Story with a series of flashbacks from the early 1800’s that looks at the event from the family's view. I won’t go into much of the story, other than to say that the family apparently had a curse placed on them by a witch. According to some, it was the only case in American history that a death was caused by a ghost. But the event took place in the early 1800’s and the facts of what really happened are not well documented. The writers could have visited Jonesboro and heard this story, and others from the mountains of Tennessee, told better by some of America's greatest storytellers. Instead, they give us a hodgepodge of sequences that make little sense and a movie that's as inconclusive as any I've seen all year.

As bad as the movie is, there are ample questions about evil and good to make discussing it worthwhile. When John Bell cheats a woman by charging her too much interest on a loan, a violation of church guidelines at the time, the woman places a curse on him and his family. The resulting hauntings mostly target his daughter; there are some scary sequences here that play on the terror component of the spiritual realm and illustrate how paramount the challenge between good and evil is in the story.

As the family tries to exorcise their ghosts, the movies shows the challenge of evil and recognizes the power of Jesus to overcome evil. Evil's source is clearly portrayed as Hell, as coming from Satan and his ongoing conflict with God. The Bell family just gets caught in that battle.

Though the family enlists help in exorcising the ghosts, they would have done better to enlist someone other than the skeptical school teacher and drunken church leader. No one fighting the ghosts seems to have any sense, including the Bell family. Though aware of the ongoing attacks on their daughter, they do nothing at first to stop the attacks. They let their daughter stay in her room alone where most of the attacks occur. Not until later do they attempt to leave the property. This family, if they loved their daughter as portrayed in the movie, sure had a strange way of showing it.

Don’t get me wrong, there were times I was scared from the psychological terror surrounding this supernatural battle, but I recommend waiting to see this movie until its DVD release. Who knows, maybe all of those things left on the cutting room floor will go back into place to make a movie worth watching. But unless that happens, this just isn’t a movie I can recommend. Visit the web sites on the Bell Witch, read the story, listen to some of the stories, but stay away from the movie. On a scale of 1-10 I give it a very disappointing 3, and that despite a cast of great actors.



Blogger Reviews by Mike Furches said...

There has actually been several long discussions on this topic from other movie discussions. I would encourage you in particular to visit the reviews for The Grudge, and The Devil's Rejects. Within those reviews are several discussions regardig the relevance of horror. Is that to say it is for everyone? Certainly not, however, your friends are wrong, it is as if they are more concerned about the powers in the world, than they are confident of the power of the one within them. Again, please check out those discussions and round tables on those two movies. Some very good stuff discussed in detail.

5:27 AM

Blogger gypsyprose said...

Great! I'll check them out--thanks for the leads.

3:18 PM


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