Either way, it's a sad commentary on our mass entertainment, and the result is the same: a very bad horror movie. Still, this film isn't jaw-droppingly bad in the stupid, empty-headed sense that the remake of When A Stranger Calls is stupid. No, An American Haunting clearly aims higher, and it has some nice muscle to attempt to reach those aspirations. For instance, Adrian Biddle is the cinematographer, and he's a giant in the industry. The film stars Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, and their talent is also inarguable. The costumes are lovely, the attention to period detail splendid, and the story itself, of a haunting in 1888 American heartland, is undeniably compelling.
So, one must ask: what went wrong? Why does a horror film with such great potential almost immediately go south and stay in the crapper for its running time of 83 minutes? Again, I go back to the first paragraph of this review: someone, somewhere (a producer, a director - who knows?) doesn't trust that we as viewers can watch patiently a movie like this one, and understand subtleties. Instead of creating a mood, the movie depends entirely on phantasmagoria, on over-the-top mechanical effects.
So, what we're left with in An American Haunting is a grossly manipulative, vividly overdone freak show that lacks nuance, charm and any sense of grace or tragedy whatsoever. The first mistake the film makes is that it opens in the present (gotta keep those cell-phone-owning teens in their seats!), in mid-chase sequence, which isn't terribly effective. I like a movie that commences in media res, but this is ridiculous...and misconceived. We don't know the character being chased, where she is, or why she's being pursued. More to the point, there's no build-up to the chase and therefore no gradually dawning horror. The movie wants to start in full "scare" mode and it hasn't earned the right do so.
From this inauspicious opener, An American Haunting settles down with a voice over narration from 1888. The reading of these lines (which take us back to the past...) is so over-the-top, so laughably "period" that humor is actually generated. There's no sense of authenticity, and the movie takes a second broadside right out the chute.
Once we're back in the 19th century, we're introduced to John Bell (Donald Sutherland), wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) and their comely daughter, Betsy, who has caught the eye of the local school teacher, Richard (James D'Arcy). John is involved in a dispute with a witchcraft-practicing neighbor, Kate Batts, and that's causing strife. Forecasting the ascent of credit card companies a century later, he's charged her an onerous interest rate (20%!) on a loan, thus violating Church law. Naturally, she's angry about it. Batts tells Bell that she will curse him and his "precious" daughter in a scene played with all the nuance and humanity of the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz. It's all horribly cartoonish. You half expect her to mention Bell's "little dog too."
Sure enough, the Bell family begins suffering ghostly intrusions on their property. But this isn't a "haunting" so much as a full-on supernatural Exorcist/Blair Witch/Amityville Horror assault. On steroids. The unseen force of evil blows open windows, burns down candles in seconds flat, lifts poor Betsy in the air and slaps her around silly, like she's one of the Three Stooges. The director adopts the perspective of a flying demon - call it demon cam - so often that the movie makes you want to reach for the Dramamine, not clutch an armrest in terror. Then, when that nausea-provoking trick grows old (and how it grows old...), the movie trots out fast-motion demon cam...with bad CGI. Inexplicably, the movie switches from black-and-white to color and back to black-and-white during the demonic ambushes. I hasten to add, there's no rhyme or reason to any of this sound and fury.
Again, as little subtlety as there is in this review, there's less in An American Haunting. "There's something evil" one character solemnly declares and before he's even taken a breath, a crucifix flies off a wall across the room. It's not a vindication of his dialogue so much as punctuation to the sentence. Later, one of the characters declares "The fog is awfully thick for this time of day." All the better for those evil wolves to attack you then, my dear.
An American Haunting also (lamely) resorts to black-and-white flashbacks of events we've already seen depicted in the film (a nod, perhaps to the old series, Poltergeist: The Legacy, which endlessly padded out stories with black-and-white flashbacks of previously seen events, just so viewers who made potty breaks wouldn't miss any important plot...). And worse, this movie provides a conclusion that is totally unearned and, frankly, nonsensical. I'd hate to ruin it for anybody, but until the last ten minutes of the film or so, there's absolutely no indication of "the truth" about what's happening here. Maybe it was supposed to be a surprise, but it's just facile, and not very convincing. Without spoiling the end, let me ask this question to those who've seen the movie: If we're to believe the ending, then how do you explain the wolves? And the fact that they constantly attack Betsy and her protectors?
On the other hand, An American Haunting does get the idea of poltergeists right in the strictest sense of paranormal studies. Poltergeist disturbances are not believed to be like those featured in the Tobe Hooper film of 1982, but rather are often tied to children experiencing turbulent adolescence. A clever viewer will understand that most of the horror in this film takes place in Betsy's bedroom at night. She is going through maturation, a sexual awakening, as an early scene with Richard and mistletoe makes clear. When all is revealed, and you know who is punishing whom, it sorta makes sense...but really...there's no precedent for it in the film.
Perhaps alone among horror movie sub-types, the ghost story offers an artistic and skilled director the chance to be classy. I make no bones about the fact that I love slasher films and also those savage movies of the 1970s like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They possess a poetry all their own....but you can't rightly claim they've got class. But the ghost story - well-orchestrated - can prove itself something lyrical and beautiful in the cinema. I would point to John Carpenter's The Fog (1979), which utilizes the leitmotif of ghost stories as oral tradition to paint its tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Or perhaps, The Changeling (1980), a glorious and shiver-provoking creepfest starring George C. Scott that charts an odd symbiosis between a child ghost and a widower who has lost his own child. Of recent vintage, The Others (2001) was remarkably restrained and effective. Tasteful, really. AND classy.
An American Haunting forsakes this noble heritage for an hour-and-a-half of dodging and weaving camera-work, a facile conclusion, bad CGI and a "heightened" pace that never lets the audience breathe. The problem with that breathless pace is that if you're always dramatizing ruthless spectral attacks, never pausing for a bump in the night here or a little chill there, adrenaline isn't actually induced. It's reduced. A movie needs to build to the big stuff. There's no build in this film. It starts at full throttle and stays there the whole time, but somehow is never scary or exciting. Everything's played at the same accelerated tempo, until you just don't care anymore, and the director runs out of tricks.
An American Haunting even gets another horror movie tradition wrong. It foolishly sticks it's opening card (which reads: "This film is based on true events") at the END of the movie instead of at the opener. Every good horror movie, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Return of the Living Dead to The Blair Witch Project is savvy enough to understand that you must tell the audience the events of the film are true (even if they're not...) before the movie, so viewers will be thinking about that factoid the whole time. But here, the declaration is a wasted breath, an after-thought.
Ghost stories should be about artistry and shivers, not weaving cameras and CGI effects. An American Haunting proves that movies today have forgotten how to tell us good, scary campfire tales. This movie panders to the wrong-headed need to "thrill" when I would have happily settled for a well-told "chill."