The scariest ghosts are the ones you make yourself!
Actually, that seems more like the premises of A Christmas Carol, but it definitely fits this Courtney Solomon-directed film available to stream on Hulu (get your horror movie act together, Hulu.) I was expecting some old-timey ghostly fun, but what I got was a haunting that was a little less supernatural and little more, uh, metaphorical, maybe.
Also, at the end of the movie, viewers find that the film was based on some sort of true events, but I haven’t looked them up in trying to keep my review clear of bias. So! Here we go.
I don’t think this movie deserves much of a synopsis, but a couple of big reasons why I didn’t enjoy it come from the narrative and it’s presentation. First, An American Haunting opens with a teenager having a nightmare. Her mother come sin her room to check on the screaming child and finds that her daughter had been in the attic and found an old, broken doll and a raggedy old notebook.
Now, this is where the story actually begins, I guess. It felt like like this time warp back to the early 1800s should have been a flashback for the modern time period of the film, but it wasn’t; the film focuses on the colonial Bell family, consisting of father John Bell (another Donald Sutherland), wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek, who deserved much better), and their children, the most important being their teenage daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood).
Strange things begin to happen to Betsy during a legal spat between her father and their neighbor, Kate Batts (Gaye Brown) over the ownership of a section of land. The judge rules in favor of Kate, since John committed usury. As Kate has a “reputation,” the family believes that the strange noises in their house are either because she sent one of her enslaved people to walk around on the roof (but why?) or she is a witch and has cursed them.
Throughout the course of the movie, Betsy falls asleep in school, much to the worry of her (CREEPY! CREEPY!!) teacher, Richard (James D’Arcy). Betsy hears voices in her room as she clutches her broken doll, spies a specter on the swing next to her, and gets thrown around her room by an invisible hand. Her family is worried, but the preachers readings don’t help, and Richard can’t logic the scariness away. The scene with Betsy on the swing is one of the best in the film, with a slow-motion pan that goes behind a tree and reveals the ghost on the other side. It’s cool! The rest of the shot tricks are too fast, too convoluted, or too 2005-CGI for me to enjoy.
John’s health begins to decline as well, withering away as his daughter lies in a nearly catatonic state, the invisible force fighting anyone who comes her way. One day, Kate Batts sends an enslaved person, Zack (whose actor I could not find, interestingly) to bring a bag that was found on the land and belongs to the Bells. It contains the bloody clothing of John and Betsy, prompting the family to belief that Kate Batts has used the clothes to curse the two of them.
Well, this stuff keeps on happening. It’s not very scary, and it’s not shot in any kind of wholly artistic or inspiring way. I wasn’t super interested–it was either the witch, or it wasn’t. Turned out it wasn’t!
Here is where things get a little messy, narratively and morally. Don’t read on if the trigger warning applies to you!
Lucy, Besty’s mother, is increasingly worried about her daughter, and pleads to Richard to marry the child (yucky) to protect her. This seems incredibly troubling for modern viewers, but it is a small hint to what Lucy already knows, deep down, and what the “spirit” reveals to her through her own memories, I guess? Anyway, Lucy wants to get Betsy out of the house because her father, John, has raped her at least once.
Viewers come to find that Betsy is the source of the “spirit” that was born through her loss of innocence to enact revenge on her father. The bloody clothes were hidden by John. The phantom pulling off her blankets and holding her down (a wholly uncomfortable scene, especially as they focus on the child’s face–the actor was 15 at the time) was Betsy reliving the night (nights?) over and over. Her broken doll comes from the same violence.
In the end, Betsy and her mother apparently poison John and bury him. Betsy marries Richard, and Richard leaves his journal in their attic. We’re back in the modern world: the daughter from the beginning tells her mother that her father is here to pick her up. As they drive away, the apparition of Betsy stands in the living room, telling the mother to “Help her.” The mother runs out and chases down her ex-husband and daughter.
Alright. A heavy movie–heavier for me than most murder or horror movies because I don’t have to worry about those things in most circumstances. But sexual assault is a reality for many, and I’m sure it was just as prevalent in early 19th century America (or more prevalent, if historical stereotypes have truth to them.) I don’t want to downplay that factor, but it always feels a little extra icky to use those scenes as shock factor in horror movies. I don’t think this film was just using Betsy’s rape as a shock, but I do think that it was not a good story, unfortunately.
I see the film as a sort of metaphor for the violence of the whole thing, and the personification of Betsy’s anger, frustration, and sadness. But it just doesn’t feel like the movie positions itself that way, at least not until the very end when all of this is revealed. Richard, the adult teacher, is a sort of red herring for creepy behavior, but he honestly doesn’t have much play in the movie; he’s just an odd side feature.
What seems to go wrong is that An American Haunting focuses too wide, spreading its point of view and trying to hide its meaning until the very last second so that viewers can go, “Ah, I see the barely visible hints now.” It doesn’t work.
And the flashback method? Nope. It’s so random to have the modern family at the beginning and end. This movie could have easily cut them out. It makes it much less of a horror movie and more of a moral thriller, I suppose. And while that could totally work, it doesn’t. It just doesn’t.
I went on a little longer than I meant to with this one, and I didn’t even talk about what I liked. I did enjoy the one scene where Betsy yells at her teenage love interest for bothering her. That kid was annoying. Other than that, I didn’t enjoy it. Why two stars, then? I don’t know. Maybe that’s the lowest I can go. I am too kind to bad horror films.