An American Haunting is one of those films, regardless of genre, that actually had potential, but somewhere along the assembly line, went awry — horribly, irrevocably awry. It had many of the proper ingredients to make a ripe horror film: a fine cast, led by Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, and fertile source material upon which to draw from.
As Haunting hawks in its promotional campaign ad nauseum, the film is based on true events, “the only case in U.S. history where a spirit or entity caused the death of a human being.” During the early nineteenth century, the Bell family in Tennessee experienced a haunting that slowly drove its members to the brink of insanity, and in the case of one person, to death. Initially believed to be the work of a local witch, the Bells realize they’re dealing with something entirely different, a truly supernatural being whose attacks—one vivid scene in particular, in which Betsy is invisibly held up, slapped and dragged stands out—venture into the traumatic.
With a promising premise, Haunting could have been a memorable horror flick, but instead, we get a haunting cinematic mess. If anyone’s to blame, it’s Solomon, whose only other directorial credit appears to be 2000’s daft film adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons. Solomon, who also contributed the screenplay, bookends the film with a poorly executed framework which takes place in the modern day. The family who currently lives in the Bells’ home stumbles across a journal in the attic that recounts the period-based tale. Viewers are left wondering what relevance this concept holds until the very end, when the curtains are pulled away to reveal a plot twist/tie-in that shoves Haunting into the realm of the absurdly contrived. I won’t spoil it for those of you who actually see the movie, but it’s laughable, to say the least.
Directorially, Solomon also falls short. While occasionally, the film genuinely spooks, much of the film falls flat, whether it’s the occasionally odd moment (Spacek begging D’Arcy to marry her daughter) or the poorly-executed due either bad-editing or unremarkable dialogue. Sutherland and Spacek, veteran actors to be sure, turn in the decent performances, but then again, the script isn’t very demanding, all-too-heavily relying on the cast for some semblance of complexity and realism.
So when one of the Bells eventually bites the dust — no, I won’t say who — and the dark secret is revealed, the awe you’re left with isn’t positive, but one of incredulousness. You won’t be haunted by the revelation, but rather the fact that your $10.75 went to waste.