"Let their blood rain from the sky!"
From the mind of Courtney Solomon, the man who brought you the Dungeons & Dragons movie, comes An American Haunting. Allegedly based upon the real life haunting known as the Bell Witch, this date movie tells the story of a father and daughter that are plagued by a spirit after the father is found guilty of loan-sharking.
Initially, the family believe the source of the haunting is an eccentric neighbor with the reputation of being a witch, but in an attempt at making what is a standard and rather uninspiring film into something more, it turns out that the hauntings are [SPOILER, I GUESS] retribution for the father's continued abuse of his own daughter.
The film begins with modern-day footage of a girl running through the woods, pursued by something unseen. It turns out to be a nightmare, but it sets up a nice little vignette featuring the modern owners of the house. While short and insubstantial, this vignette actually serves to beef up the film's plot substantially. Without it, the story is pretty thin. Solomon spends all of twenty minutes introducing the characters and establishing the back-story before leaping into over an hour of continuous set pieces.
Frequently repetitive, and never progressing beyond the jump-scare, these set pieces are entirely reliant upon the film's excellent sound effects. The early scenes where the family is still unsure what's going on are deliciously creepy, as unseen things skitter up and down the walls of the cinema and thuds emanate from above you.
Visually though, the film is unimaginative and derivative. The bed scenes are reminiscent of The Exorcist; the scenes with the little girl are like The Ring, and the spirit's tendency to float around looked cheap and silly when it was used in The Evil Dead.
Furthermore, Solomon makes the cardinal mistake of a horror director without much plot, by tipping his hand far too early. An hour into the film, the characters even start to look bored as the spirit returns again and again to bump and grind the daughter and fling things around the room.
Indeed, the middle of the film drags horribly as the characters sit around unable to do anything. When the predictable "twist in the tale" finally comes, it feels like a release. Finally the actors have something to do! Finally some plot!
Despite casting giants of ‘70s horror Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, Solomon gives them little to work with. Spacek does well in a role with no substance to it whatsoever beyond occasionally simpering, but Sutherland is horrific. Arguably Canada's greatest living actor, the charisma and intensity that made him so wonderful in Don't Look Now and so mysterious in JFK seem to have completely deserted him as he groans and bumbles around the set bringing nothing to the role that was not written into the pages of An American Haunting's decidedly lackluster screenplay. The supporting cast can be forgiven their performances, as Solomon literally gives them nothing to work with, but actors of Spacek and Sutherland's standing should see the blank slates that are the Bells as an opportunity for creativity, not an excuse for sleep-walking.
As a horror film, An American Haunting simply has nothing to offer. It has no new ideas, no interesting themes, no stunning or shocking visuals, and no intriguing plot twists. It functions solely as a film to take girls to in the knowledge that they'll grab your arm every time a thud or a major chord echoes round the cinema.