"An American Haunting" is a film that can be evaluated to two levels; one, as a movie...an exercise in visual storytelling...with a beginning, a middle, and an end...and with rationales and explanations for what transpires in the course of its storyline; and , secondly, as a recounting of an historical event, with the evaluation being on how close to the known facts and "truths" of that event the movie story adheres to.
As a movie, "An American Haunting" (based on a NOVEL; Brent Monahan's "The Bell Witch-An American Haunting") works rather well. Exquisitely photographed in Romania (doubling for early 18th century Tennessee) by Adrian Biddle, the film is replete with stunning tracking(some of this in the frenetic style of "The Evil Dead")and pan work, and some steadicam revolving shots that are nothing short of marvelous. The lighting is sumptuously atmospheric and all the other technical contributions, from editing, sound, sound effects,special effects, etc., are first rate. It has been said by some that this film has a lot of the look and feel of "Sleepy Hollow", and I must concur there
and state that this says a lot for "Haunting", since "Sleepy Hollow's" cinematic structure was superb.
The acting performances in this film are superb as well. Donald Sutherland is terrific as the breaking-down-by-the-day John Bell, Sissy Spacek grounds it all stoically as mother Lucy, and Rachel Hurd-Wood is excellent as the put-upon by "something" Betsy Bell, the primary focus of the action. All other cast members deliver solidly in their own roles as well.
The movie story is told in flashback as a modern mother, a Bell descendant, reads over a old manuscript that retells the story of the 1817-1820 poltergeist manifestation. The tale takes us back to when prosperous Tennessee farmer John Bell is taken to a church-council court over usury and swindling by a local woman, Kate Batts, who has a reputation for...maybe...being a witch of sorts. Bell is acquited of the land swindle charges, but judged guilty and reprimanded over the usury.
Kate Batts is not satisfied with this outcome and lays a curse upon he and his household. Or so she says.
Subsequently things start going weird and wild for the Bell family, with attacks by an invisible entity on daughter Betsy, the predations of a mysterious black wolf, and a string of telekinetic terrors on the family in general. The story line depicts the breakdown and death of John Bell (they have a "reason" for it...and a depiction of it...both taken from Monahan's novel rather than real-life) and the subsequent "lifting" (seemingly) of the curse. It then jumps back into the present and ends with the suspicion of a new "Kate" flare-up beginning...for the same reason the screenplay alledges/insinuates for the original incidents.
The storyline goes full circle and ends on as threatening a note as it began with. Overall, a well-told tale. A nice, shivvery fright-fest, full of chills and free of over-the-top gratuitous blood and guts. And quite recommended by this reviewer.
But how close to the truth of the real-life incident is the movie story?
The answer? SOMEWHAT. The time period is right, the setting is right,the costuming and weaponry, and the OVERALL accounting of events as well...although considerably "time-compressed" to keep the flow of the story going. The stuff that is not true is the "Church-Court" hearing at the beginning wherein Bell was "cursed" by Batts(no such thing happened, Bell and Batts just had a long-standing fued over a business transaction...Kate Batts's name got dragged into the issue when the poltergeist started calling itself "Kate").
The black wolf is a fiction, as is the chase through the woods in the coach, the coachwreck, and the flight through the woods on horseback with the wolf in pursuit. (In fact, the "wolf" element is a spin on the first recorded incident OF the Bell Witch Infestation...wherein John Bell was walking through his cornfield one day and saw something "with the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit" that he shot at to no avail). In the novel and movie script, something with the body of a dog and head of a rabbit would look ludicrous, so this mystery varmint got "transformed" into a black wolf instead. The little-girl phantom is a "cook-up" as well. And nowhere in this film are the little boys slapped and harassed, which WAS the case in real life. Betsy Bell was the PRIMARY focus of the harassment for a long time, but in real life "Kate's" animosities got quite spread around. The fact that the boys are NOT shown as being victimized in the film is because to do so would mitigate AGAINST the "reason" the filmmakers introduce later on to "explain" the manifestation.
Also a fiction (based on pure, unsupported supposition by the book's author), is the film's "true reason" for the poltergeist attack. This
rationale is extrapolated from the "American" notion of the origin of the phenomenon, which theorizes that there is a telekinetic projection from the unconscious mind of a stressed or disturbed individual...usually a pubescent female...that causes all such events. The British/European interpretation is more that stress and emotional strife (from any number of sources, including the rigors of puberty) can create energies that "low spirit entities" can utilize to manifest poltergeist activity. They base this on the fact that several notable poltergeist manifestations have involved no pubescent females whatsoever. Or anything else observably sexual in nature. Author Monahan obviously used this one theorized interpretation to "juice" his novel (somewhat with our present-day agenda concerns regarding child molestation), and the filmmakers followed suit because what works in literature with the public generally works in cinema as well...and sex ALWAYS sells.
In truth, however, in no records ANYWHERE is there anything that indicates ANY kind of "funny business" between farmer Bell and his daughter. No suggestion of such appears anywhere, not even through insinuation. This supposed "trigger" for the Bell Witch seige comes purely from the imagination of Brent Monahan and nowhere else. As a story device it works, and it works WELL...but in legalese it "assumes 'facts' not in evidence". ( It might be of interest to know, though, that while there was, as stated above, NO mention of "monkey business" between father and daughter to be found in any contemporary commentaries on this matter, the same can NOT be said about schoolmaster Richard Powell
...played in the movie by James D'Arcy. The movie plays Powell as the dashing "secret admirer" of Betsy Bell, a hero-figure who works to aid the family...and the covert object of his affections...in ridding themselves of the "Bell Curse". But some researchers of this case say that depiction may not be accurate at all; that there was plenty of talk that Master Powell, much older than Betsy Bell, rumoured a divorced man from another state, had a "yen" for the "young stuff" and Betts was the best looker around. These researchers say, talk was, that Master Powell himself might have dabbled in the "Black Arts" far more than Kate Batts ever did, and that he possibly set this "entity" loose on the Bells to give himself a "foot in the door" with them, to make him seem more of someone they could depend on in a crisis...as John Bell was suspicious of Powell's ongoing interest in Betsy. This interpretation would suggest that Kate Batts was "framed" and Powell was the true sorcerous culprit.
In the end, in this scenario, John Bell got eliminated, Powell got Betsy, the family and community got largely hoodwinked, and Kate Batts "took the fall" for it all as a "patsy". Is this scenario anymore provable than the made-up book/movie one that makes John an incestuous child molester? No , but it at least demonstrates that there WAS another alternative possibility out there.)
Still and all, we have a good movie here and that is what ultimately matters. Enjoy it for the great acting jobs it contains, the moody sounds and scenics, the great period costuming and make-up work, and the goose bumps it provides along the way.