Movie review: ‘An American Haunting'

It's not every horror movie that slouches into multiplexes set in the Tennessee wilderness during the Monroe administration. (Monroe, as in James Monroe, U.S. president from 1817 to 1825? "Era of Good Feeling"? The guy with the doctrine?) It turns out that "An American Haunting," in its elemental, B-movie fashion, dares other unusual things as well. Using alleged "actual events" as a template, writer-director Courtney Solomon fashions a crafty mystery with joy-buzzer jolts cutting through its somberness.

It deals with what's purported to be the one documented case in America of a death attributed to a ghost. In 1818 John Bell (Donald Sutherland), a farmer in Red River, Tenn., begins hearing and seeing wolves that aren't there. His beloved daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) starts getting a strange feeling that someone she can't see is climbing into her bed.

Her father and mother (Sissy Spacek) think Betsy's only having bad dreams. Then other strange noises, including slamming doors and whispered voices, make themselves known, and Betsy levitates. The parents are convinced this craziness comes from a curse by the local crazy lady. Why no one thinks of barbecuing the alleged witch is just one of many unanswered questions.

Solomon ("Dungeons & Dragons") appears to be aiming for a kind of gothic-Americana version of the insinuating horror films imported from Japan. At times, the narrative thread slips the movie's grasp and there are flat spots in which characters just scream and thrash. Given what its ending aims for (don't ask), such interludes feel flabby and gratuitous even with Sutherland and Spacek providing gravitas to the ghoulishness.

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'An American Haunting'

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