johnlink ranks AN AMERICAN HAUNTING (2006)

I entered the month of June realizing that I was closing in on 400 rankings. I wanted to get some stuff in which should have been covered in these pages by now. I was successful in doing so with the INDIANA JONES series. I was then slightly detoured by a couple of B-movies, but that’s alright because DEMENTIA 13 is a film I’d been wanting to see. So now… AN AMERICAN HAUNTING. This I did not want to see. Well, I mean, I made the choice to watch it, so I can’t say I absolutely didn’t want to see it. But the Celtics had just lost a heart-breaker to the hated Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and I needed FearNet to cheer me up. I found an 83 minute horror movie starring Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland. How bad good it possibly be?

I watched AN AMERICAN HAUNTING (2006) on 6.10.12. It was my first viewing of the film. There will not be a second.

I’m going to go ahead and put some spoilers down here. I’m not even going to capitalize ‘spoilers’ the way I usually do in the way of warning. Because, truthfully, I want to help you to avoid this movie any way possible, even if that means ruining it to the point that there is no need to ever put it on your television.

This movie had me for the first three minutes. Modern story, girl being chased from the woods into her bedroom, door shakes, she trembles in fear, sees a ghost. Creepy. Her mom wakes her up. It was all a dream. Except, mom isn’t so sure despite her reassurances, because daughter went into the attic and noone is supposed to go into the attic.

Cool, I thought, I can get into this. Then mom opens up a letter, which we learn was hidden in the attic but which noone ever found (irrationally). It’s a letter from somebody two hundred years earlier explaining that the house is haunted and why. Boom, we’re transported back to Tennessee in the early 19th century. The movie never recovers, even when it returns to the present for a final scene.

Making a scary story out of a period piece is a daunting task. Much of what drives an audience’s feeling of dread is empathy; the worry that they themselves could be the next victim. This obviously requires a certain suspension of disbelief, which is made harder when the characters are inaccessible. I would (and will) argue that the characters of the very modern FRIDAY THE 13TH remake are equally inaccessible, but that is due to them being douche bags and not to the fact that they’ve got 19th century problems (but a ghost ain’t one). So being a period piece doesn’t, in and of itself, make it impossible for a film to be scarier. But you’re making it a little harder on yourself, and as such, you need to step up your game. This movie did not.

Secondly, it’s nice to forget you are watching a movie. This isn’t an absolute unbreakable rule, but as a filmmaker, you should attempt to avoid jarring decisions which rip the viewer out of any reality the movie has created. If you don’t, you end up blaring a large neon sign flashing DON’T WORRY, NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF HERE, WE ARE FORCING YOUR PERCEPTION (though that would be an admittedly inefficient sign). For example, as a Director it might be wise not to change your color filters three or four times in the course of one scene. I understand that you are trying to confuse us. Is this in black-and-white because we are seeing the ghost’s perspective? Is it the gray mind of family patriarch Donald Sutherland? Is it sunny and glowing because the entity is gone? Is it back to the default low-level light the rest of the movie utilizes to… hell I don’t even know. And I don’t think the Director knows. If the hope was to cause confusion while reminding us that this is all being poorly manipulated… mission accomplished.

Speaking of light levels… Just because your film is set in the early 1800s doesn’t mean you can’t utilize modern lighting off-camera to illuminate your goddamn movie. I understand that they didn’t have big lights back then and everything was candle driven. But as a film viewer, I’d like to see what the hell is going on once in a while. I found myself rooting for the scenes to return to daytime. Not because I was scared, but because it’s nice to be able to follow the action on screen.

Hey marketing department: Don’t tell us that this is the story of the only man ever to be killed by a haunting. Know why? Because when you do that, yet most of the feature is focused on the haunting of his daughter, it is obvious that she isn’t going to be killed. Thanks for eliminating any possibility that I should be worried for her, marketing department.

Twist ending alert! It’s not a witch who caused the haunting because Donald Sutherland broke church law and charged her 20% interest (ah, that old story device: interest driven curses). Turns out Daddy raped his daughter awhile back and that’s what made the spirit come and attack the family (including the daughter he raped… but whatever). I don’t think Donald Sutherland had any idea that this would be the outcome, since it’s not really teased anywhere else in the film. Suddenly, we learn that it was not the witch who caused it all. It’s some other thing that just happened to curse his family the same exact way the witch said his family would be cursed. That’s some solid writing. AN AMERICAN HAUNTING is supposedly based on a book, a manuscript, written by a school-teacher who witnessed the entire thing. Let’s just say that this movie didn’t convince me that the school teacher was being forth-coming. Perhaps the book is more convincing than the silly movie.

And Donald Sutherland and Spissy Spacek? Come on. You’re better than this material. I give all the actors in this film credit for doing the best they can despite a weak script and some poor directing. I’m not sure when in the process everyone learned that the Director’s only previous experience was directing the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS movie, but that would have been my cue to contract malaria as an excuse to back out of the film. I hope the pay was good at least.

Let’s see… what else… what else? Oh. Repetition in a scary movie sucks. When the haunting and possessions start to become routine, to the point where THE ENTIRE FAMILY JUST SITS AND WATCHES you’ve lost me. If the family doesn’t care to step in, why should I?

Can I say anything good? Sure. Some nice exterior shots, which I guess were probably suggested by the cinematographer since the direction felt otherwise inept. The landscape became more dreary and ragged as the curse wore on reflecting the demeanor of the family. That worked well. Also, there is a nice zoom cam (absolutely EVIL DEAD inspired) towards the end which results in a flipping carriage. That scene looked good. I wish the rest of the film was so inspired as those seven or eight seconds. Usually, if a film is able to give me two or three good moments it can avoid getting a score of ‘1’ under the film section. However, the rest of this movie was so poorly constructed that these few moments couldn’t compensate for the remaining eighty minutes.

I think that’s all I can muster for AN AMERICAN HAUNTING. I was so frustrated with this movie that it did allow me to forget about the Celtics for a little less than an hour and a half. So I give it thanks for that.






~ by johnlink00 on June 10, 2012.

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