Because accidental visitors of Delirium Vault shouldn’t get too good an impression of this place, let’s review An American Haunting. It is the second movie by Courtney Solomon and it was completed in 2005. It was shelved for many months before it was being released to the willing public. Heck, some countries even had to wait to 2007 before they could feast their eyes on this movie (it was released in France and Germany in April, Mexico had to wait till May and Belgium to July 2007). Of course, everybody knew why these decisions were made: Solomon’s movie was so spectacular and so ahead of its time people just weren’t ready for it in 2005 (a year in which the iPhone didn’t even exist – need I tell you more?). Anyone who’d seen Solomon’s debut knew this was true, for Solomon’s first movie was Dungeons & Dragons.
Yes, I’ve seen An American Haunting and I survived. (Someone should make a T-shirt out of that.) It’s not that the movie is so awfully bad, it just doesn’t have any artistic merits. The movie is based on the Bell Witch legend, but there’s is a small contemporary storyline added to the mix (no doubt for flavour). It even goes as far as explained what happened with the Bell family, but suggest this is only one of the many possible explanations. In case that viewers will be shocked because Solomon dares to give a ‘logical’ explanation (well, logical means something happened in real life that was the cause of all those supernatural things) the movie climax will explain the origins of the Bell Witch and then will explain it once more, only with different images and even more unclear. This is after you’ve been through half an hour of all too obvious hints. It surprised only the one dim-witted teenager in the audience.
That teenager was also the only to shriek during the movie. She must’ve turned off reruns of Buffy The Vampire Slayer for being too scary and stayed away from The Grudge series (where, no doubt, one or two scares were lifted from). Yes, it’s definitely not as scary as it intended to be, apart from one or two truly scary moments (the unexpected hand on the shoulder routine always works, but we’ve known that for nearly 90 years now). When something allegedly scary is going to happen the music will warn you upfront and if the ‘demon’ enters the house, you’ll notice this because the screen goes from colour to black and white. Though not always. So it isn’t really adequate.
In case you don’t know the story, the Bell family were living happily together in the early 19th century when suddenly the family appeared to have been cursed. Especially the father John Bell and the lovely daughter Betsy. The family members even see human figures and wolves appear and vanish within seconds. Poor Betsy has it even worse: the demon will drag her by the hairs and slap her whilst hanging mid-air. Though a school teacher and a friend with a handy hobby (exorcism) try and help the family, things only get worse. Only the death of Betsy or John Bell will put an end to all this madness, it seems.
John Bell is portrayed by Donald Sutherland. His wife is played by Sissy Spacek. These actors were renowned in the seventies and if you’re wondering how come these fine actors are now forced to appear in this sort of movie, remember that – while Spacek and Sutherland were flourishing – fine actors like George Sanders and Joan Crawford appeared in the trash movies of the seventies.
So let’s look at the younger generation on offer in An American Haunting. James d’Arcy appears as the school teacher who fancies Betsy (all very platonic, of course) andis keen to prove there’s nothing supernatural about these strange events (one has to laugh at his suggestion as to why poor Betsy was dangling mid-air being slapped by an invisible creature: dry peas were blown to make the sound why black people held her up, wasn’t it in the middle of the night after all?). Mister d’Arcy should get an award for his endurance: he vigorously refrained from showing the audience he could act and managed to keep this up during the entire movie. Applause!
Rachel Hurd-Wood has the disadvantage of having to play Betsy. Bell Witch fansites said she wasn’t too convincing and one of the reasons was that she ‘was too pretty to be a pioneer’. You have no idea was this sort of review does to my imagination and to how I now think pioneers must’ve looked like. Americans, you’re all descenants from Quasimodo, mark my words!
I didn’t think Rachel did a bad job. There are scenes where she couldn’t convince me, especially some of the scenes where she’s being tormented, but I’ll be lenient: when the demon is dragging her somewhere, you just know that extras are taking her wrists and moving the young actress because Rachel’s hands are never shown during these scenes. I was watching An American Haunting and I felt like going home and watch a Hammer movie: at least they knew how to get some atmosphere into a movie. Rachel Hurd-Wood did her best and let’s just add that this is only her third movie role: apart from appearing in a Sherlock Holmes tv movie, she’s only been in Peter Pan and Perfume: the Story of a Murderer. We wish her well and better movies than this.
Truth be told, some scenes in An American Haunting do play like a rollercoster and sometimes a lot happens in only a couple of minutes. That is to the movie’s credit. However, lots of other scenes drag and add to the unevenness of the film. The footnote of the movie that is the contemporary storyline was a nice addition, especially since it’s followed by the famous words “based on true events”, a phrase they stuck to nearly every horror movie in the 70s. Only in the seventies they’d probably have turned this into a better movie.