An American Haunting takes the spurious “based on real events” claim to new extremes, proffering a ghost story that’s been (as per the production notes) “validated by the State of Tennessee as the only case in U.S. history where a spirit or entity caused the death of a human being.” What this really means is that the people of Tennessee circa 1818—the setting for this tale of a family’s problems with a malevolent demon—were an unreliably superstitious bunch, as Courtney Solomon’s 19th-century film seems about as rooted in historical fact as his previous directorial outing, Dungeons & Dragons.
John Bell (Donald Sutherland) gets his clan in otherworldly trouble after screwing over a local witch in a land dispute, which drives the conjurer to reciprocate (or so John believes) by cursing the greedy old fool and his teenage daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Shortly thereafter, inexplicable bumps in the night give way to Betsy receiving schoolyard visits from a young red-cloaked specter and, later, being repeatedly bitch-slapped and sexually assaulted by the invisible apparition, whose soaring movement through the Village-ish town and Bell home is conveyed through Sam Raimi-inspired POV shots. If its B-movie production values and overcooked performances (from Sutherland, Bell matriarch Sissy Spacek, and skeptical schoolteacher James D’Arcy) are significantly inferior to those of last year’s similar The Exorcism of Emily Rose, its thematic thrust is also far less noxious, and not merely because there’s no pro-faith/anti-science claptrap to dilute the modest fun of its jolt-heavy scares.
Offering up a scenario in which—spoilers herein—the poltergeist, spawned from John’s incestuous rape of Betsy, dishes out vengeance by forcing the girl to re-experience her sexual assault, the film often smacks of sexism, as if it’s arguing that randy females (Betsy having been shown early on as a mischievous flirt) must be discriminatorily punished for their sexual desires. And yet despite Solomon’s undernourished script (based on Brent Monahan’s book) and an absolutely abysmal contemporary narrative frame (featuring lots of anguished letter-reading), what ultimately seems to be peeking out from underneath An American Haunting‘s cheesy ghouls-and-goblins shroud is a somewhat astute allegory about how abused women, in seeking justice, are often unreasonably forced to relive the heinous crimes perpetrated against them.