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May 15, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 15, 2006 |

An American Haunting starts off by getting right to the point: little girls getting pestered by ghosts. After briefly announcing that the setting is present-day Tennessee, we watch as a poor young lass gets chased and harassed by some unseen malevolence. She manages to outrun Casper and escape to her bedroom, where Mother comes and gently chides her for running away from a demon.

At this point the story does some “Whoa, hold up a second, dude”-style backpedaling. It turns out Mom is a writer, or something, and she just happens to be rifling through some old family manuscripts, which document — wouldn’t you know it — a haunting of the house way back in 1816.

Cut to frontier Tennessee, where Paterfamilias John Bell (Donald Sutherland) lives with his wife (Sissy Spacek), young daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and some other family members who aren’t really worth mentioning. After Bell runs afoul of a witch-like character, she seemingly curses him and Betsy, and sure enough, weird things start happening thereafter. In the vein of The Exorcist meets The Entity, i.e., all personal-haunting films, including last year’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the girl is beleaguered in her bed by sounds, voices, and finally, molested by a poltergeist.

Everyone is suitably chagrined, but damned if they are of any help. They yell, look worried, and pontificate once in a while from the Bible, but someone always ends up leaving her alone and in bed when the ghost shows up to torment her, and this happens no less than 200 times throughout. At first, it seems like the witch, or Satan, or maybe some kind of location-bound spirit is responsible for the trouble, but when the movie finally unfurls itself in the last five minutes, it opts for a much stupider explanation. I’ll get to this later.

Courtney Solomon, who hasn’t made much of a case for his directorial prowess after this and Dungeons & Dragons, doesn’t seem to know the cardinal rule for ghost-stories: Don’t bore the shit out of your audience. Haunting has an absolutely flaccid pace and no arc whatsoever — Girl gets shoved about by spirits, then gets pimp-slapped by spirits (I’m being perfectly literal here. Seriously.), girl screams, family looks flummoxed and posits stupid theories, rinse, repeat. And poor Betsy’s encounters with the entity don’t waver particularly from instance to instance, giving no sense of peril or mystery. Solomon also doesn’t have anything to offer in the way of imagery, just standard trappings: Creaking doors, vague whispers, and a couple of gross faces at random intervals. Generally, though, Solomon relies on the old have-stuff-jump-out-and-scare-you-with-loud-noises approach, which, after 20 times or so, gets pretty annoying.

The film does its best to anchor performances around Sutherland and Spacek, who are the only practiced veterans here and at ease with their roles, but there’s simply too little to do in order to make interesting characters out of them, and Hurd-Wood isn’t a particularly compelling actress to revolve the plot around. And yet the film still had potential, given its bucolic setting and post-colonial atmosphere, to induce a unique ambiance of a time and place where witchcraft and spirits were very much a part of the culture. It doesn’t. For all we know Sutherland wandered off the set of Pride & Prejudice in costume and Solomon decided to have an Antebellum setting just so he wouldn’t have to change.

Yet, for all its faults, I didn’t want to completely discount this film, given that in the right time and place it might evoke the slightest of creepiness at the drive-in. But then we arrive at the world’s dumbest denouement and everything goes to pieces. So, for the few of you out there who haven’t been dissuaded so far into avoiding this crap, now is the time to get lost before I unload on this whopper of a moronic spoiler.

In the end, we finally learn the source of the disturbing attacks: Papa Sutherland raped Betsy, and the repressed memory itself became the violent force that assaulted her and the family! You read right, an honest-to-God avenging molestation angel. This revelation is also the reason why the 2006 girl is having demon-related crises. The problem with this is twofold: 1.) Forgiving the fact that people seem to be able to create psychokinetic ghosts willy-nilly, why would such a force turn on Betsy herself? 2.) That’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard.

Ultimately, any psychological metaphors one could possibly draw from this ridiculous idea are pointless, because it’s pretty clear that Solomon (who produced and wrote, in addition to directing) has thrown in his lot with the super twist-ending just for the purpose of unpredictability, yadda yadda yadda. The only thing notable about this particular twist is how hopelessly bad it is, and borderlines insulting real victims of molestation to boot.
Don’t dignify this crap with your money, even for comedy’s sake.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

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Film | May 15, 2006 |

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