There are two terms that viewers have come to fear almost as much as scary movies themselves. When a flick has an extra few minutes thrown in the middle somewhere that was never approved by anyone, the film can pass itself off as 'Unrated' and make people think they're missing out on something if they don't see this new and improved version. When a film weighing in at about an hour and a half has about three seconds worth of an actual true story in the mix, the term 'based on a true story' appears so viewers will go to the theaters like zombies, hoping that they'll see what truly happened.
I've never seen An American Haunting before this unrated edition came out on DVD, and it seemed to carry both of those dreadful phrases. Eep. This film which is directed by Courtney Solomon (yes it's a guy), originally had a run time of eighty-seven minutes. This unrated DVD gives us an additional three minutes worth of footage to now total an even hour and a half. Yay for the wheels of marketing!
Of course you can't judge a book by its cover, or a DVD by its case. The important thing is if the movie actually works in accomplishing what it set out to do. An American Haunting is based on a novel of a similar name by Brent Monahan titled The Bell Witch: An American Haunting. It's apparently the only case that has officially been acknowledged where it was believed a man had been killed due to supernatural forces.
John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is a proud land-owner and well respected member of a community that's very religious and follows the church like we normally would a court system. Unfortunately Mr. Bell is accused of usury for making a deal at an interest rate of twenty percent, which the church also finds him guilty for. For punishment he's told that the damaging of his good name will be enough, but the person who was seeking compensation from Mr. Bell isn't satisfied and threatens the safety of his family.
His daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) begins to experience supernatural disturbances at night, and every evening they're becoming increasingly more violent. Mr. Bell and his wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) try to search for an explanation for it all, hoping there's a logical explanation for what Betsy is telling them. It's not too long before the Bell's and even some close family friends, experience the poltergeist terror first hand.
The film has been book-ended with a short modern day story that's merely meant to bring us around to the fact that in 1998 a manuscript from a school teacher had been found to verify the truth of this tale. This movie wanted to boast that it was actually based off of truth as opposed to the wildly altered stories we see on film otherwise. The Exorcist was based off of a little boy that hardly had any of the symptoms we had seen in that film. Slap 'based on a true story' somewhere after the title though and people will eat it up. The book-ended portions of this film are not based on any truth. They're just a stage for the rest of the film.
I can't really distinguish what's been added to the film or not, but I can say for certain that there's nothing here that constitutes using the term 'unrated' as it's marketed. There's nothing that's really too shocking or inappropriate, especially when you compare the terror in this film to a recent title that was similar in many ways, such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Rachel Hurd-Wood does pretty well as the nineteenth century girl that's getting her ass kicked by some ghost almost every night. Her performance doesn't rival Jennifer Carpenter from Emily Rose, but that is a pretty tall order to fill. Rachel was fantastic with her fright and fear. She definitely has some pipes on her when it comes to that! When Rachel's character wasn't being troubled though, I felt her character was too much like one from a storybook. Donald and Sissy were great to watch, I just wish there had been more of them.
This film had a nice transfer, which is fortunate because a film that relies so heavily on its mood and atmosphere really needs anything that could be a distraction in the picture to be non-existent. There's no noise, the blacks are solid and the colors ring true. There are a lot of scenes that are dark but have a bit of detail that wouldn't bring out the films atmosphere if the contrast was lessened. There's no problem with the contrast though thanks to the nice black levels, absence of artifacts, and strong colors. There's no noticeable edge enhancement to complain of, and everything is presented in an anamorphic 2.31:1 ratio. Kudos to Lions Gate for such a great transfer!
We get a really nice English Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track here. There's constantly background music during the movie to set the mood for every scene and help push us over the edge with our scares, and the sound effects are just as active. We get appropriate surround throughout the entirety of the film with both the music and effects, and the dynamic range is nice and provides the last little nudge we need to be pushed out of our seats. There's also an English Dolby 2.0 track available which sounds decent enough for two channels, and there are English and Spanish subtitles available as well.
There's no director commentary, that is there's no typical commentary. There's a special feature called the Video Commentary. We see Courtney sitting in the recording studio talking about his film as we see it playing in the corner of the screen. After a few minutes he starts to wonder how anybody can actually sit down for an hour and a half and listen to anybody just go 'blah blah blah' about a movie. He jumps out of the studio, into a vehicle, and takes us to their internet studio. We basically get an earful of the whole process that went into getting the film made, such as raising the money and using the internet as a cheap marketing tool. He made some very valid points that probably a good portion of people don't read the papers as much as the internet and it's all just sort of a waste of money. Word of mouth is the key and the internet is the place to spread it. Their internet studio specialized in going to all the sites and message boards they could to spread correct information about the film, and dispel made up information from internet 'trolls' trying to damage the name of the film before it was even released.
There's really not much here in the actual making of the movie itself, just pretty much all the aspects of the behind the scenes stuff. It was interesting and definitely a unique way to do a commentary, but it sounded like self-boasting at times. The whole 'Hollywood is full of phonies and if you feed their ego they'll feed yours' attitude is refreshing to hear to an extent, but it feels like this unique method of doing commentary mixed with the messages we're hearing is just a way to gain a following. The best way to convey that you're real and you don't care about all the hooplah, is to just do what you do and not make a fuss.
One thing that did rub me the wrong way as a reviewer though had been some of his comments about reviewers! Pretty much anybody who ends up as a film critic uses that as their fall-back job. They're full of crap and all reviewers want are to be treated nice and to have you stroke their ego. Apparently nobody ever says to themselves they want to be a film critic for a living. They just end up as critics when they are failures at making films. Mr. Solomon I guess would have to be a little bitter after making Dungeons & Dragons, which was one of the few movies I've seen where I think I actually heard a toilet flushing in the soundtrack that wasn't meant to be there! All jokes aside though, I can understand Mr. Solomon's view, but these critics are useful resources. Word of mouth is a powerful tool and the internet is there to manipulate or advertise at your every whim, but film critics have very powerful voices that are heard everywhere and people do listen to them! As an aspiring professional film critic for the future, I'm certainly disappointed in what I heard. Not everyone is corrupted by some system Courtney. That's really the most interesting aspect of the bonus features though, the video commentary. Courtney is certainly not the only person to do mini-commentaries that don't go the whole length of a feature, as the creators of South Park have been doing it for a while now. Other than this commentary, we get some alternate and deleted scenes, none of which were very interesting. There are a few alternate endings to the film that pretty much put us in the same place at the end, just in a different way. There's a very brief interview between the director and Sissy Spacek that isn't very informative, just more a promo spot sort of thing.
There are the internet promotions available on this disc. Basically, since this movie was based on a true story, the director wanted to prove it. He went to the town where this story is based and interviewed some of the people that live there and know of the tale. What resulted were numerous episodes that appeared on the internet letting the world know An American Haunting wasn't trying to use the old Hollywood trick of saying 'this is true' and then clearly being quite the opposite.
Other than this, a few trailers and TV spots, and that's all!
An American Haunting doesn't bring anything new to the table within the film, in fact there are many aspects of it that seem to be borrowed from other films. Watching this I felt as if I was watching a mix between The Others, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, The Exorcist, The Ring, and even a touch of Amityville. Thanks to the brisk pace of the film though, I was kept entertained and would even actually watch this movie again the next time I want to watch something more along the lines of a ghost story when I'm tired of watching possession flicks.
Without any real character development or much time wading in the plot, we're pretty much left with a film that was made solely for the average scares. After a while, it gets a little tiring seeing the haunting grow into something more and more each night. Even at only an hour and a half long, there were times I was hoping it would get to something significant instead of pulling us along with just the standard scares we've seen in numerous other films before this one. In the end we're left with a film that's probably just a little above average. It's flashy and very effective, but it doesn't have enough substance between trying to scare us and trying to provide a twist ending that was a little disappointing. I recommend you rent it as it's definitely worth a viewing, just don't expect it to be nearly as good as the alternatives already mentioned in this review.