‘An American Haunting’ – Atmospheric But Undermined By Its Ending
This film holds a special place in my heart because this film had so much going for it. It had two of the finest actors of past, present or future in Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland in the lead roles of Lucy and John Bell. There was the performance of Rachel Hurd-Wood as Betsy Bell that, while not Oscar worthy, was able to hold her own against the likes of Sutherland and Spacek.
Then there is the story behind the film. The story of the Bell witch is the most documented haunting in American history. It is the only reported case in which a spirit has caused the death of a living human being. The first time I remember reading about the Bell witch was in the pages of Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery. I was enthralled with the story of this vengeful entity who made life a living hell for John and Betsy Bell. Can you see why I was so stoked to see this film?
The first part of the film moves along rather nicely. It grows a bit tedious in some places, but for the most part is a faithful adaptation of the events that took place on the Bell farm in Adams, Tennessee from 1817 to 1820. The scenes of the haunting and the torture of Betsy Bell by an unseen force are well filmed and well acted and Sutherland and Spacek are at the top of their game. I am enjoying the film and intend to recommend it to friends the first chance I get. That is until the ending causes all that came before it to come crashing down like a house of cards.
The infamous legend of Tennessee’s Bell Witch gets a lavish treatment in the 2005 Gothic thriller ‘An American Haunting’. With top-notch production values and performances, the haunting tale builds moody tension – until an ill-advised finale unravels the ambiguity that gives the story its power.
When widower John Bell and his daughter Betsy begin experiencing violent paranormal phenomena in their farmhouse, they target the witch they believe responsible. But as the manifestations worsen, doubt creeps in about whether the ghostly assaults could be psychological in origin.
For most of its runtime, the film maintains an air of eerie mystery, letting the bizarre events play out without definitive explanation. between the ghostly voice, disembodied assaults, and Betsy’s deteriorating mental state. Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek deliver nuanced performances, grounding the tale in palpable emotion.
But rather than embrace ambiguity, the filmmakers feel compelled to provide a ‘twist’ ending that attributes the haunting to toxic gas-induced hallucinations. The attempt at reason diffuses the supernatural mystery that gives the legend its compelling power.
With its exceptional craftsmanship and restrained tone, ‘An American Haunting’ could have avoided the paranormal genre’s pratfalls. Unfortunately, the ending’s pedantic clarification undercuts the ethereal allure so masterfully built.
Throughout the entire course of this film director/co-writer Courtney Solomon leads us to believe that he believes in the legend of the Bell witch. The ending that is tacked on to this film is like a slap in the face. Why does there have to be a rational explanation for the Bell witch? Why were the filmmakers not satisfied with what could have been an intriguing adaptation of an amazing legend in American history? The supernatural is not a rational thing, so why treat it as such?
Thank you, Courtney Solomon, for ruining a legendary tale.
The movie is actually based on a true story. Andrew Jackson is quoted as saying, “I would rather take on the entire English Fleet than stay one night at the Bell House.” He later formed a group of men to test the rumors of the Bell haunting. Their findings are documented in M. V. Ingram’s 1894 book, An Authenticated History of The Famous Bell Witch. This movie was based on the book by Brent Monahan, The Bell Witch: An American Haunting the Famous Bell Witch.