History lessened 

click to enlarge John Bell (Donald Sutherland) and his daughter Betsy - (Rachel Hurd-Wood) in An American Haunting.
  • John Bell (Donald Sutherland) and his daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) in An American Haunting.

An American Haunting (PG-13)

Carmike Stadium 10, Tinseltown
That Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland were convinced to star in this dog of a movie is the central mystery of An American Haunting, a cinematic adaptation of Brent Monahan's 1995 novel, The Bell Witch: An American Haunting.

Had you grown up near Robertson County, or anywhere in Tennessee or southern Kentucky for that matter, you'd be familiar with the Bell Witch, a wicked apparition that plagued the home of John and Lucy Bell in the early 19th century. Future President Andrew Jackson, a friend of the Bells, was reported to have seen the witch in action, though none of his official papers or diaries says as much. Still, the Bell Witch became the only ghost officially recognized by a U.S. state as having been the official cause of someone's death (John Bell's, by poison) an early proclamation that holds little water in the 21st century, but to which filmmaker Courtney Solomon (Dungeons & Dragons) still pathetically clings.

As the story goes, John Bell is called before the church elders for pulling a crooked land deal on neighbor Kate Batts, who's widely reported to be a witch. Batts played here by a hissing and snarling Gaye Brown puts a curse on Bell, and nights at the Bell house soon become a terrifying haunted scene. Bed covers are snatched down, candles mysteriously burn out, mysterious voices taunt, and worst, daughter Betsy's nubile body is overtaken.

Donald Sutherland plays John with his characteristic sloe-eyed languor, trying to chase the ghost away by hunting it down with a musket in several misty scenes, leading the audience to wonder when he's accidentally going to shoot his earnest son, John Jr. (Thom Fell). As Lucy, Sissy Spacek does little more than look pop-eyed and continue tucking her little girl into bed in her haunted room, carefully closing the door behind her, leaving Betsy to the spirits that romp rapaciously with her every night. Hello!?

Rachel Hurd-Wood gives it her schoolgirl best as the lovely Betsy, until the director turns her into a zombie child who can't stay awake at school. Her best scenes show her running through the woods of northwest Tennessee (actually Rumania, site of the film shoot).

The biggest mistake director Solomon makes is to clumsily attempt a contemporary narrative framework for the piece, adding sexual politics and molestation hysteria to what was once just a ghost story. The film begins and ends with a Bell descendant reading Lucy's yellowed account of what really happened, rescued from the attic some 200 years later. The woman eventually becomes aware of the Bell Witch's hidden meaning in a series of wooden, amateurish scenes that feel completely disjointed from the main narrative.

The screaming, relentless, assaulting, ear-busting soundtrack of supernatural effects jolts viewers in their seats but doesn't disguise the spare and stilted dialogue or the dramatic pitfalls in the script. Showy camera work does little more than distract the viewer momentarily from the silliness in hand at the Bell house.

An American Haunting takes a beloved American ghost tale (as I remember it, the Bell Witch actually had a sense of humor) and turns it into Little Exorcist in the Big Woods, pounding us with the director's big-scare ambitions at every turn.

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