Anybody doubting the contention that horror movies are made or destroyed in post-production need look no further than "An American Haunting." A sterling cast and a compelling real-life story are rendered unwatchable by shoddy editing, an overbearing score and some of the creakiest and most obvious sound effect frights to ever grace a charity Halloween haunted house. The worst thing about the movie is the prevailing sense that director Courtney Solomon may, at some point, have shot the material for a good film only to mess everything up after the cameras finished rolling.
"An American Haunting" tells one version of the Bell Witch legend, one of the foundational domestic ghost stories and the only validated case in U.S. history in which a spirit or entity caused the death of a human. It's Tennessee in 1818 and John Bell (Donald Sutherland), a prosperous landowner, is being disciplined for charging excessive interest rates. As bad as those accusations of usury are, they're nothing compared to what begins happening when teen daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) begins to experience some unexplained phenomena. Actually, the phenomena are easy to explain if you happen to have seen "The Exorcist," because it's the same assortment of flailing limbs and tossed bedsheets. However, John and wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) have had limited access to movies, so they're at a total loss.
It's like a Post-Colonial Scooby-Doo, as respectable actors in perfectly pressed costumes run up and down stairs avoiding unseen spooks. Solomon ("Dungeons & Dragons), keeps the camera moving at all times, creating a frantic pace, but no actual tension. Whenever he needs a scare, he resorts to the exact same shoddy technique -- softening Caine Davidson's score down to nothing and then bashing viewers upside the head with a jarring violin chord. With the sound effects, Solomon is convinced that louder equals scarier.
There's also a general lack of confidence in how the story should be told. The film uses a framing device in the present day that's laughably awkward and doesn't pay off until the very end. Meanwhile, in the past, it's never clear how much time has passed. There's some logic to the insane, dream-like chaos that descends by the conclusion, but more than a few viewers are going to be utterly flummoxed by what finally happens. I think that Solomon, who also wrote the script based on a novel by Brent Monahan, has an interesting theory about the nature of the Bell Witch, but it's delivered in such convoluted fashion that most viewers will miss it.
The actors were all gone by the time the filmmakers started making mistakes and shouldn't be blamed. Hurd-Wood, fragile and vulnerable, is particularly good and Spacek and Sutherland are sturdy as ever. As convincing as they are at times, the cast features at least five or six different versions of the Tennessee accent, all good for a giggle.
"An American Haunting" premiered last year at the AFI Festival in Los Angeles and after reading early reviews, Solomon reedited the entire film. Perhaps now would be a good time to take another pass at the movie, because it isn't ready yet.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times