A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov
***Warning: This Review Contains Spoliers. Read At Your Own Risk***
I only have one question: How? How is it that the best horror film of 2006 is still the mediocre effort by Alexandre Aja to remake The Hills Have Eyes? How is it that no one can even reach the bar that was set by that picture. Here is a list of filmmakers that Aja has beat so far this year: Eli Roth (Hostel), Uwe Boll (BloodRayne), Christophe Gans (Silent Hill), William Brent Bell (Stay Alive), Jeremy Haft (Tamara), Simon West (When A Stranger Calls), James Wong (Final Destination 3), Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch), James Gunn (Slither) and now we can add Courtney Solomon to that list. Not that those are really great filmmakers, but still, it’s a shame that all of them should be in Aja’s shadow. It has been tough looking forward to horror films this year, but I was looking forward to An American Haunting anyways.
In fact, this film was one of the most anticipated movies of this year. I don’t know why. Probably because Donald Sutherland looked bad-ass and Rachel Hurd-Wood is a freaking hottie, and the fact that I was intrigued by a horror film set in the early 1800’s. I mean, picture all the opportunities to break away from the normal horror film and take a few stylistic twists and turns that will not bore me out of my mind. To tell you the truth, Solomon does break away from what has become the cliched “creepy little girl” that has appeared in recent Japanese rip-offs and he also doesn’t get too gory like recent disappointing over-the-top horror films. So at first glance, this film looks like it is something new, because it honestly is something new. It is the execution that hurts the film so much that no one will be able to take away anything positive from it, other than a few scares created through ‘Boo!’ moments.
This is a film that tells the allegedly true story of the only ghost to ever kill a human being in America (I’m guessing in Europe this is more common?). The film is told in a flashback as a person is reading an old letter in the modern day. The narration intercuts into the story at times, but it provides very little background or anything useful to the story. It’s the story of the Bell family which consists of father John Bell (Donald Sutherland), mother Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek) and Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Betsy starts experiencing strange events in her room like footsteps, scratches, and even her sheet getting pulled off the bed. She also sees a girl that no one else sees walking around in the woods and in the school yard. Thinking that it’s a curse put on by a woman that he charged 20% interest for some land, or something that I forgot, John Bell decides to call in James Johnston (Matthew Marsh) who reads quotes from the bible. Shortly after, proving that it didn’t work, the poltergeist violently attacks Kate in a violent way – lifting her up by the hair and slapping her face. Also black wolves attack John Bell at various times.
And that repeats over and over again. The ghost keeps attacking, the family keeps trying to find solutions that ultimately don’t work, until Solomon’s script takes an intelligent turn towards the end that offers a few answers about what the movie is truly about. The answer is rape. This film is about rape. That’s about all I want to reveal, because you guys will be mad at me. Anyways, I must say that I like the turn the script takes at the end, it’s a surprisingly complicated theme to explore in a horror film and it makes it a little more worthwhile then it would have been.
The acting by everyone involved is strong. Solomon demonstrates he can direct actors (something that was missing from his debut Dungeons & Dragons) although with such talent even Uwe Boll will have trouble making it stilted. First off, there is Donald Sutherland whose performance has very few hitches and is a very good presence in the film. Sissy Spacek has some problems, but her performance is solid. Lastly, Rachel Hurd-Wood turns in an incredible performance reminiscent of the one by Jennifer Carpenter in Exorcism of Emily Rose. She’s a powerhouse and carries the film, proving once again that she is THE most promising young actress of our day, and that includes Dakota Fanning.
So you must be asking yourself, where is the bad part. The bad part is the fact that the film is repetitive and badly edited. First off, I appreciate Courtney Solomon’s want to try to scare the viewer from the first scene to the last one and that non-stop jump-out-of-your-seat-moments strategy works the first couple of times. By the middle of the film’s running length though the sudden swelling of the music by newcomer Caine Davidson and the extremely loud noises that accompany nothing (it is a poltergeist overall) will get tiring. The inevitability of that happening is almost 100%. Also, I mentioned the bad editing. The film skips over too many transitional scenes. For instance, there is a scene during which Betsy’s teacher Proffessor Powell (James D’Arcy) and Betsy’s brother John Jr. (Thom Fell) are escorting Betsy away from the house because that is the only location the ghost haunts. Unfortunately, the ghost intercepts them and they are attacked not only by it, but also by the black wolves again. The resolution of the attack is never seen, because the screen fades to black. Cut to the house again, and there they are John Jr. and Richard discussing how they can’t get away from the ghost with John.
That is just one example of numerous instances during which editor Richard Comeau decides that something that is necessary is unnecessary. That of course causes confusion, and it even confused me – something that not even Silent Hill accomplished. I actually overheard some of my fellow audience members complaining about the confusion. Granted, this unruly editing does seem a little studio influenced, but I am reviewing the final product here and it is what it is.
Overall I think that this is a very difficult film to enjoy. Director/Screenwriter Courtney Solomon tries to make this a smarter film then most horror films, and he is helped out by great acting, but overall it is a film that will confuse and even anger a few people. Overall I would only recommend that you go see it if you are really craving something different as far as horror is concerned.