If you’ve ever had a hankering to see what William Peter Blatty’s most famous story would look like in a period setting, “An American Haunting” is for you. But the only real mystery about this nineteenth-century “Exorcist” is what could have possessed Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek to agree to star in it.
In the tale written and directed by Courtney Solomon (“Dungeons and Dragons”), based on a novel by Brent Monahan that was purportedly derived from a real event that occurred in 1817 Tennessee, the two veterans play John and Lucy Bell, a prosperous couple whose house, and daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), are bedeviled by some malevolent invisible force after John is hexed by Kate Batts (Gaye Brown), a neighbor woman whom he’d fleeced in a land deal. Soon Betsy is being assaulted in her bedroom by The Force, which begins by simply removing her blanket (prankish in a cold room, perhaps, but hardly terrifying) and then proceeds to more brutal acts, tossing her about the place, slapping her repeatedly and pressing her down on the bed. A Bible-spouting friend (Matthew Marsh)–presumably a minister of some sort–attempts a simplex sort of exorcism, but it doesn’t take. (Apparently no Catholic priest was available, more’s the pity.) Betsy’s teacher Mr. Powell (James D’Arcy), with whom she’s infatuated, at first assumes there’s some rational explanation for everything, but soon he’s persuaded otherwise when he visits and sees for himself. An attempt to take Betsy away from the farm proves a disaster when the spirit takes the shape of a snarling wolf to prevent the escape. Bell goes to the woman he’d conned to make amends, but she says that her “curse” was just a joke. Finally The Force turns from Betsy to John, and with the man’s death (which the film suggests wasn’t a natural one), the haunting ends–until a tacked-on modern close (the whole story has been told as a flashback from the perspective of a descendant) indicates The Force is still abroad and unsatisfied.
“An American Haunting” offers no explanation for the spooky goings-on, but a closing addendum points out that poltergeist activity sometimes seems to arise from emotional stress and that might have been the case in this instance (indeed, there’s a strong suggestion that human abuse is the root cause of the problem). But the real cause of Betsy’s distress here can probably be ascribed to poor special effects and woozy camerawork (courtesy of cinematographer Adrian Biddle), which frequently indulges in whiplash tracking shots from the POV of the apparent ghost. Some may also derive from the loud, persistent score by Caine Davidson, which works overtime in a vain effort to generate shocks. The production design by Humphrey Jaeger tries manfully to capture a period feel on a very limited budget, but is only marginally successful. As to the cast, Sutherland and Spacek bring their innate authority to what are empty roles, and Hurd-Wood endures a great deal of physical discomfort while looking a bit old for a girl still sleeping with a doll (not Chucky, it should be noted, though it is deformed). D’Arcy is arch and flat, and everybody else plays to the rafters–especially Marsh, who shouts out biblical verses in stentorian tones, and Gaye, who delivers her initial curse so stridently that it’s unintentionally funny, particularly when her final flourish is “and your pretty daughter, too,” words that suddenly recall Wicked Witch of the West Margaret Hamilton’s “and your little dog, too,” spoken to Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Despite all the thumps in the night, screams, snarls and overwrought cinematography, “An American Haunting” isn’t in the least scary, merely tedious. Its main virtue is brevity–the picture clocks in at barely eighty minutes. In its final reel–if you discount the silly, and pointless, contemporary epilogue–the camera turns on Spacek’s Lucy as she observes hubby John deteriorate (and apparently gets some message from the spooky force). Spacek looks genuinely stricken. Fine acting–or maybe she’d just seen the rushes from the shoot.