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American Haunting, An (Unrated DVD)

An American Haunting DVD (click for larger image)Starring Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, James D’Arcy, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Matthew Marsh

Directed by Courtney Solomon

Distributed by Lionsgate


“A remarkable occurrence, which attracted wide-spread interest, was connected with the family of John Bell, who settled near what is now Adams Station sometime around 1804. So great was the excitement that people regularly came from hundreds of miles around to witness the manifestations of what was popularly known as the “Bell Witch.” This witch was supposed to be some spiritual being having the voice and attributes of a woman. It was invisible to the eye, yet it would hold conversation and even shake hands with certain individuals.”

History of Tennessee written by historian Albert Virgil Goodpasture, 1886.

Sound interesting? How about this:

“In America there has been only one officially documented case in which a spirit has caused the death of a human being. This is that story.”

Does that seem at all familiar? It should. It was plastered all over the place during An American Haunting‘s ad campaign.

Make no mistake, the true events surrounding the Bell Witch haunting briefly touched upon by Mr. Goodpasture above are the stuff of nightmares. Perfect fodder for a spooky feature film! There’s no doubt the PR people behind this film had one hell of a hook. Yet, it’s that very hook that I have the most issues with.

***Spoilers follow, so if you want to see the film and have it not be ruined, please skip the next paragraph***

Why? Mainly because it did not deliver on its promise. Viewers were baited and then hit with a nasty little punchline: At no time in this film is anyone ever killed by a spirit. In fact, the only person that bites it in this snooze-fest is poisoned by his wife. Furthermore, now that I think of it, there’s not even really a ghost in this movie. What we have here is the story of a little girl who is molested by her father. Her lost innocence (I know, what the fuck, right?) then manifests itself as a poltergeist and begins torturing her by pulling her own hair, choking herself, and smacking herself around. How the hell a person can become a vengeful ghost while still alive is beyond me, but even so, who is she getting revenge on? Herself? What does that solve? Why not go after the dad? Here’s a better question, why not make a film that is not a muddled and thoroughly convoluted mess? The end of this waste of celluloid is a complete cop-out. Yay forgoing the promised supernatural premise in favor of needlessly playing the molestation card. Yawn.

An American Haunting DVD (click for larger image)An American Haunting doesn’t stop the Fright Train of Bad™ there either. It keeps rolling along while dumping load after load of crap into our laps. During the film’s impossibly long ninety-minute runtime, we are treated to every known cliche in horror film history in rapid-fire succession. Thunder and lightning? Check. Creaky old house? Check. Spooky whispering? Check. Overblown orchestral score? Check. Spectral mist? Flowing. Musical stingers and cheap-pop jump scares? Ahuh. It’s all there. In the hands of another director, these elements could have been strung together to produce at the very least a good popcorn experience. We don’t even get that. Instead we get a film that is as transparent as it is heavy handed. One that fails on every level to generate suspense and deliver scares. One that doesn’t even remotely deliver what was promised.

And what of that magical word, unrated, that’s slapped upon the box? When it comes to horror movies, there is a popular misconception that if you watch a film that is unrated, you’re going to see something that was too scary or violent for theatres. That’s not always the case. Especially not here. The term unrated only means that this particular version of the film has something in it that wasn’t included in the theatrical cut. Something that could be as innocuous as an actor gazing stupidly at the camera for an extra two seconds. The bottom line — if even a moment of extra footage is added to an existing cut, it automatically becomes an unrated edition. So what was included here? I’ll be damned if I could tell the difference. Maybe that’s because ever since I saw this crap in theatres, I’ve been blocking. Who knows? If you see any difference, please feel free to write me. Better yet, don’t. I really don’t care.

You would think that the DVD extras could shed some light on what the filmmakers were thinking. At the very least the commentary could point out what was added to this cut to make it unrated, right? Nope. We get a commentary, but it’s a video commentary that only runs about fifteen minutes long. Way to cover your ground! Thanks for that! Next up are a few alternate and deleted scenes which SURPRISE bring nothing to the proverbial table. From there we have some Internet featurettes that despite clocking in at about ten minutes are infinitely more interesting than the feature itself and an interview with director Courtney Solomon and actress Sissy Spacek that was originally filmed for the movie’s MySpace site. In it Solomon asks Spacek something to the effect of “How did I get such a great actress to be in my film?” Good question. That will leave us all stumped for years to come.

In America there have been many poorly made films in which a spirit has caused the death of a human being. This one may just be the worst.

Special Features
Director’s video commentary
Internet promotion videos
Deleted and extended scenes
Interview with with director Courtney Solomon and actress Sissy Spacek
Trailer gallery

1 1/2 out of 5

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Steve Barton

You're such an inspiration for the ways that I will never, ever choose to be.