After Dark Films
The spirits make way too much noise in "An American Haunting," a supernatural tale whose overbearing clamor is redeemed to a large extent by engaging performances and fine 19th-century period detail.
Like its awful modern cousin, last year's "The Amityville Horror" remake, things don't go bump in the night in "American Haunting" they go shrieking and caterwauling.
Director Courtney Solomon, who made 2000's ludicrous fantasy tale "Dungeons & Dragons," takes a big step upward here, though subtlety seemingly remains a foreign concept to him.
Creepy as it is at times, "American Haunting" loses much of its fright potential amid the frenzied visuals and screeching vocalizations employed to re-create the horrors wrought by an unworldly presence tormenting a Tennessee farm family in the early 1800s.
Classic ghost stories such as "The Haunting" and "The Innocents" worked so well because they relied on quiet suspense that heightened the more explicit scares. "The Sixth Sense" and "The Others" showed that modern audiences respond just as readily to hushed terror.
With "American Haunting," it's hard to stay frightened when the film quickly establishes a pattern that another boom, bellow or hyperkinetic instance of poltergeist activity is just around the corner.
Thank the spirits for the divine presence of Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland as the earthy souls whose family is haunted, and Rachel Hurd-Wood as their daughter, the focus of the phantom's wrath.
Spacek and Sutherland play Lucy and John Bell, heads of the Red River, Tenn., family whose unexplained haunting has fascinated ghost-hunters for 200 years. The film begins with a notation that the Bell haunting was the only documented case in American history in which a spirit caused a person's death.
Solomon adapted his screenplay from Brent Monahan's novel "The Bell Witch: An American Haunting," which posits one possible source of the violent manifestations visited on daughter Betsy Bell (Hurd-Wood, who played Wendy Darling in 2003's "Peter Pan").
As the specter carries out classic poltergeist tricks, the Bells, their Bible-thumping friend (Matthew Marsh) and Betsy's skeptical teacher (James D'Arcy) speculate futilely on the spirit's nature. A departed soul? The work of the devil? A curse by a supposed witch bearing a grudge against John Bell?
The film tosses out its explanation almost as an afterthought, the answer arriving out of the blue after an hour's worth of repetitive booing and baying by the nocturnal visitor. There's also a cheap epilogue depicting the Bell curse following the family through the ages.
Compounding the hubbub is Caine Davidson's blaring score, which, like Solomon's visual and aural excesses, desensitizes viewers to the scares the story holds.
Production designer Humphrey Jaeger and costume designer Jane Petrie bring stark authenticity to the preindustrial trappings of the film, shot largely in Romania, while Adrian Biddle's cinematography is wonderfully dark and claustrophobic.
The actors are the saving grace, Spacek (the combination heroine-victim-villain of another unsubtle fright flick, "Carrie") a grand matriarch, Sutherland a confident man undone by powers outside his understanding, Hurd-Wood a mix of radiant approaching womanhood and animal terror.
Their impassioned performances make you really care what happens to these people, even when Solomon's noisy overindulgence makes you almost wish their home would collapse in on itself like "The Fall of the House of Usher."
"An American Haunting" is rated PG-13 for intense terror sequences and thematic material. Running time: 82 minutes.