Pay close enough attention to 30 years worth of cheesy movies, and you begin to notice all the tacky little shortcuts: The Flashback, The Dream Sequence, The Sudden Loud Noise, The Voice-Over Narration, and The "Based on Fact" Ploy are only a few of the weapons in the arsenal of the lazy filmmaker. An American Haunting is a 70-ish minute compilation of cinematic shortcuts, topped off with a doe-eyed Sissy Spacek and a wild-eyed Donald Sutherland.
It's been over five years since writer/director Courtney Solomon made a feature film, and if I explained that that film was Dungeons & Dragons - that'd be all the explanation you'd need. Solomon's sophmore effort, the brazenly dull and high-school pageant-y An American Haunting is equal parts The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Little House on the Prairie, and large glass of warm milk.
We open with a modern-day framing story, one that exists for no good reason except to provide a rather unseemly epilogue (and pad the scant running time), before we flash back to the early 1800's - where farmer-guy patriarch John Bell (Sutherland) is being berated in open court for daring to charge his neighbor interest on a loan. Mr. Bell is clearly unaware that it's unwise to cheat a woman believed to be a freaky witch, but one can only assume that Mr. Bell isn't the brightest farmer in the cornfield. The unpleasant shrew promptly curses the Bell family - more specifically, she curses Papa John and his willowy wisp of a daughter, Betsy.
Thus begins a 50-some minute series of sequences in which: blankets move on their own, lights dim, thunder crashes, and poor Betsy finds herself molested by an unseen force. Just as each attack gets extra-spooky -- Solomon cuts to the next morning, where everything seems to be getting back to normal. Repeat this bit about five more times and you've just experienced the entire second act of An American Haunting ... and most of the third.
A variety of outrageously ineffectual characters stop by to witness the occult-ish goings-on; the Bells initially recruit help from a drunken preacher-type guy, but they're not above pulling out the big guns when Betsy's attacks become extra-creepy. That's right; they call in Betsy's 14-year-old best friend and her 24-year-old elementary school teacher. Throw in a few slave/maids who vanish as readily as any poltergeist, a woodblock of a big brother who gets maybe nine lines of dialogue, and a pair of anonymous little kids who (I believe) are meant to be the Bells' youngest children ... and you're looking at a movie that feels like it was edited with the dull end of a plastic butterknife.
Solomon's visual technique -- swooping, spinning camera whizzes repeated ad nauseum -- is consistently at odds with the low-tech ghost story he's trying to spin. The ever-gyrating perspectives do little to mask the flick's sparse production design, redundant plot contortions, or narrative anorexia. As far as the pair of well-respected leads are concerned, Spacek underplays it and Sutherland opts for over. These actors could do work like this in their sleep ... and now we have the proof.
"Based on a true story" means next to nothing where movies are concerned, but the faithful fright-flick fans know what this label means: Vague scares, a whole lot of plodding plot stuff, and next to nothing that's shocking or unique. If An American Haunting truly represents a factual and accurate story ... I'm stunned that the legend has remained alive this long.
(Review reprinted from eFilmCritic.com.)