[Screen It]

(2006) (Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek) (PG-13)

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Horror: An early 19th century family must deal with a haunting in their farmhouse that seems focused on their teenage daughter.
Following her daughter's supernatural nightmare, a contemporary woman finds and starts reading through an old family journal found in their attic. Written by an early 19th century mother, Lucy Bell (SISSY SPACEK), to her daughter, Betsy (RACHEL HURD-WOOD), it promises to inform the offspring of the family's deep, dark secrets.

And thus we travel back to the winter of 1817 where Red River, Tennessee farmer John Bell (DONALD SUTHERLAND) is trying to settle a dispute with his neighbor Kate Batts (GAYE BROWN) over a business arrangement that went sour. While the church elders rule that the souring of his reputation is punishment enough, Kate -- reported to be a witch -- warns that a dreadful darkness will fall upon him and his precious daughter (meaning Betsy).

She's in that transitional stage between a girl and young woman, with her interest alternating between classmate Joshua (SAM ALEXANDER) and her school instructor Richard Powell (JAMES D'ARCY). The next spring, however, odd things begin occurring in her bedroom, where what seems to be an invisible entity enters, pulls away her bedcovers and then begins to assault her.

The family -- including older brother John Jr. (THOM FELL) -- and family friend James Johnston (MATTHEW MARSH) think it's just a case of imaginative nightmares, but when they see her dragged across the floor, lifted up into the air and repeatedly smacked by the entity, they quickly believe her story. As does the initially skeptical Richard who forgoes his quest for logical explanations in favor of trying to figure out how to help the girl. As the attacks and other haunting related activity increase in intensity, John realizes he must do something before it's too late.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Knowing that most people are inquisitive and want to figure out what's behind most any mystery -- be it scientific, medical or something in the entertainment field -- there's always the attempt to explain things. While that's obviously appropriate in the first two categories, it isn't always necessary in the third.

After all, what fun would it be if each and every "magic" trick were explained to us in full? Magicians know that, and thus the fun is being entertained by what they do while trying to figure out how they do it. This usually isn't the case in movies, TV shows or even novels where the writers believe -- rightly or wrongly -- that their reading and/or viewing audiences must be told the answer, the reason and/or the explanation of what's been bedeviling them for the duration of their contact with the offering.

Such is the case in "An American Haunting," yet another horror film from 2006 that was withheld from reviewing by critics before its release. Itself bedeviled -- both in theme/storyline and overall filmmaking, it's not very good, despite having a decent cast (most notably Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek who appeared long ago in some of the creepiest films of their time, "Don't Look Now" and "Carrie" respectively).

Although it's based on a supposedly true story from the early 19th century that's reportedly the most documented haunting in American history (or at least the opening credits tell us, as if that's supposed to make it any scarier), the film isn't that frightening simply because we've seen this sort of "girl attacked by demon" material countless times before (starting with "The Exorcist" through many an imitator since then).

Thankfully not a remake of a Japanese horror film featuring past drownings, bathtubs and girls with long black hair that covers their faces until the necessary "Boo!" moments, this one's set in the past -- specifically Red River, Tennessee in the year 1817.

The beauty of the temporal setting is two-fold. For starters, people were a far more superstitious lot back then, and thus would react with more terror to such demonic occurrences. But there's also the fact that having never been exposed to horror movies -- moving pictures still being decades away -- one can't fault them for stupidly ignoring the advice of the late Richard Pryor (from one of his standup routines) about immediately getting out of the house upon the first sign of any such supernatural activity.

Of course, most contemporary viewers have seen such films and know the ground rules. Thus, they probably won't forgive the characters for such "ignorance" and staying put while the doors slam, the candles are snuffed out and a teenage girl gets the Linda Blair treatment (sadly, sans the panoramic, 360 degree head spin).

But even if cutting the family -- where Sutherland and Spacek play the parents of the afflicted girl -- some slack in that regard, there's no excuse for them allowing or making the girl go back into the room where all of the supernatural hocus pocus is occurring.

I suppose, however, that's where the big explanation as mentioned above finally comes into play. I won't give away the ending, but it seems it explains -- to one degree or another -- why the family acts the way they do. It doesn't make a lick of sense, of course, and as a revelation, it's no great shakes as it spells out (through a character's writing and then some onscreen title pages) what was really happening.

As usual, less would have been more (thus allowing us to try to guess what really occurred), but writer/director Courtney Solomon (who previously helmed the awful "Dungeons & Dragons") doesn't seem to understand that basic principle. Then again, he's too busy mangling the suspense through his hyper-directorial style where subtlety is tossed aside (much like the main girl) and the camera operator must have gotten a good workout swishing and moving the camera through the decently constructed sets and the otherwise bewildered looking cast.

Beyond Sutherland and Spacek who can't do anything with their parts as written, Rachel Hurd-Wood plays the tortured teen, Matthew Marsh is a boozing family friend who tries his best to exorcise the spirits (maybe he should have offered the alcoholic version to them), and James D'Arcy plays the girl's teacher who provides the to-be-expected skepticism and early guesses of what must logically be taking place.

A contemporary mother and daughter character appear in bookend and occasionally interspersed short scenes (for no real reason beyond presumably trying to connect to the genre's young fans), but that adds nothing to the film beyond some unnecessary additional length to a film that already feels too long. And beyond that resultant soreness in their posteriors, viewers in the end will probably be far more nauseated from all of the camera movement than spooked by what's otherwise seen in it. "An American Haunting" rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed May 5, 2006 / Posted May 5, 2006

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