There are many things in this world I will never understand, and one of them is how this movie's ratings can be so low. Simply put, An American Haunting is the best haunted house movie I have ever seen. I have to admit I did not like or approve of the way the story ended, and the modern-day intro and exit scenes were wholly unnecessary, but everything in between is pure haunted gold. I have to believe that some viewers' dissatisfaction comes from knowing what happens before they see the movie, as even the editorial review on this page reveals one of the film's core secrets. As much as I disapprove of its existence, that particular secret (which bears the unmistakable fingerprints of sleazy Hollywood) plays out beautifully in the film's presentation. Cut out the modern-day cinematic bookends, and this film has one of the most impressive scripts I've come across in some time. The much-ballyhooed cast play up to their potential and then some, the direction is flawless, and the special effects (including the POV scenes that some viewers ridicule) are, to my mind, incredibly effective. I absolutely love An American Haunting.
Basing itself on the only documented case in US history of a spirit causing someone's death, An American Haunting basically markets itself. Don't get too wrapped up in the historicity of this movie, though, as director Courtney Solomon plays fast and loose with the true story of the Bell Witch. The "based on true events" moniker is in fact quite disingenuous, as this movie is really based on Brent Monahan's purely fictional novel The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. Anyone who knows anything about hauntings knows the legend of the Bell Witch, an entity that no less a man than Andrew Jackson supposedly confronted (although there's no evidence to substantiate that claim), but this is not the real Bell Witch's story.
John Bell (Donald Sutherland) was a big man in his little Tennessee town - until the church fathers condemned him for charging Kate Batts too much interest on a loan. Batts, widely reputed to be a witch, openly threatens Bell and his innocent daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and it isn't long at all until strange things start happening in and around the Bell home. Bell starts seeing animal spirits that disappear in the wink of an eye, increasingly disturbing scratching and running sounds in the attic and roof begin disturbing the family's sleep, and all too soon young Betsy is targeted for physical abuse by an unseen spirit. John and his wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) initially believe Betsy is having nightmares, but the sight of their daughter suspended in midair while being slapped around mercilessly by an unseen spirit pretty much puts an end to the nightmare theory. Now desperate, John calls in the local school teacher Richard Powell (James D'Arcy), who insists there is a natural explanation for what is happening - until he sees the entity's handiwork for himself. As the nightly attacks become increasingly violent and terrifying, we witness the toll it takes on everyone concerned, particularly John and Betsy. All the while, almost unnoticeably at times, important little puzzle pieces are being dropped along the way - and that is why the ending, as much as I disapprove of it, works so amazingly well.
I thought the way the director approached the presentation of the attacks was exceedingly effective, particularly the entity point-of-view shots. Some viewers apparently disagree with me on that, but I thought all of the unconventional camera work made the attacks all the more real and visceral - and ratcheted up the sense of helplessness and chaos in the house. This movie definitely has the potential to scare more than a few viewers. The casting director deserves a ton of credit, as well. The gorgeous Rachel Hurd-Wood truly brings Betsy to life, and I can't overstate just how challenging that role must have been. Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland are even more impressive as John and Lucy Bell. Sutherland was the perfect choice for John Bell, while Spacek works wonders in what I consider a somewhat understated role.
I know I'm repeating myself here, but I have to state once again that An American Haunting is the best haunted house (for want of a better term) movie I have ever seen. I can't for the life of me understand why some many critics and viewers have panned this film. Methinks the fact that a movie this riveting and impressive can be so disparaged does much to explain why Hollywood turns out so much brainless drivel these days.