Tuesday, September 19, 2006

An American Haunting

[from April 21, 2006]

With a little less excitement and tickets to far fewer flicks than last year, I joined several hundred other Nashvillians last night for the beginning of our local film festival. I was a bit surprised when I got to the Will Call desk and they couldn't find either of the tickets I had reserved. But the event staff were very, very nice and just gave me replacement tickets, without even asking for my confirmation or anything. But this did tie me up for a bit, which meant that I just barely made it in time to find a seat.

The opening film was preceded by the usual festival schpiel, and we got a brief intro from the director, Courtney Solomon, and one of the stars, British actor James D'Arcy. I think the room temp may have gone up a bit due to the fierce hotness of James (though he'll always sort of be George Blifil from the BBC's "Tom Jones" miniseries to me).

We were about to see An American Haunting, a film which opens nationwide May 5, but which the director particularly wanted a Tennessee audience to see a little early.

This movie is based on one of the many versions of the Bell Witch legend. I'm actually a little scared to even type some of this stuff. I'm not superstitious about many things, but the Bell Witch is something that definitely spooks me and has done ever since I used to hear the stories as a small child. The movie studio is pushing the idea that this is the only recorded case in American history where a spirit caused the death of a person. I don't know how true the "death" part is ... if it happened like it does in the movie, I can't imagine sane, reasonable people unable to come up with any explanation besides "ghost." But I definitely believe that the Bell family of what is now Adams, TN, was tormented by a supernatural presence for several years. As to whether or not that was the real cause of the death, however, I'm rather skeptical.

Most of the movie follows pretty much what I had always heard. There was a fairly well-off and respectable family named the Bells, and strange things started happening to them in the night - though most of the spirit's focus seemed to be on their daughter Betsy. An invisible something would pull her hair, smack her face repeatedly, and drag her around her bedroom. The attacks grew more and more violent, and (in the movie) the father, John Bell, is convinced a local woman - who John has wronged in a business transaction - is behind it.

The Good
It is VERY well made, visually and stylistically. You don't see many horror movies that are period pieces (unless the 1970s counts as "period"), so that was something pretty unique about it. It didn't look like your average horror film. There were almost no special effects, no blood, and there were no visible monsters.

It is impeccably paced. It isn't like the cookie cutter horror movie where it spends the first 10 minutes going "Grrrrr! Look at me, I'm SCARY!" and then becoming a totally different movie for the next hour while you get to know the characters and the story before it explodes in a frenzy of jump-scares and blood in the final act. This movie is continually tense. You never get to relax for more than a couple of minutes at a time. And the scares keep getting better and scarier as the movie goes on.

It is beautifully shot (by the late Adrian Biddle, whose other recent work many of you have seen in V For Vendetta). I was kind of bummed that they shot it in Romania, rather than, you know, Tennessee. But maybe they were superstitious - plus, supposedly you can't take a good picture in the town of Adams, because the spirit still lives there. At any rate, the camera work is gorgeous, and there's a very cool "Ghost-Cam" shot (kind of like the opening of Evil Dead) that culminates in possibly the most awesome horse-and-buggy wreck ever filmed.

The cast is (for the most part) outstanding. Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek are Mr. and Mrs. Bell, and Rachel Hurd-Wood (Wendy, of the most recent Peter Pan film) is Betsy. James D'Arcy is the local schoolteacher, Professor Powell. I usually don't care much for Sutherland, at least when he's playing a character that requires him to dress in period costume or speak with an accent, but he was quite good here. Spacek, of course, does Teh Scared about as well as anyone. And Hurd-Wood is poised to take the Scream Queen title away from Jamie Lee Curtis. I am very sensitive to badly done dialects, particularly if they are southern accents. And this time the accents were supposed to be specifically from my neck of the woods, so I braced myself for bad ones, but they were actually not that bad, except when a couple of the actors forgot not to be British for a second.

The Bad
My main problem is with the writing. I know 19th Century dialogue is going to be different than modern dialogue, but there is no reason it should be all clunky-ass like it is for so much of this movie. Also, the little modern-day bookend is totally pastede on yay. It would have been far more effective to have the whole thing happen when, you know, the whole thing happened. I think they were basing the secret writings on the actual ones that were supposedly written by, I think, Professor Powell. But here they've got it written by Mrs. Bell, like a letter to her daughter explaining things, as if she didn't experience them first-hand herself. The way the ghost story is set up, too, is very confusing. I imagine they were trying to go for an ambiguous feeling of "Is this is a dream?" or "Where do the nightmares end and reality begin?", but it doesn't really work and only serves to make the audience go "huh?"

I also had a HUGE problem with the "reason" for the haunting. It reminded me forcibly of the twist in 28 Days Later, where it all seemed to be about the victimization of women. I realize that this is a real problem, and it's one I'm particularly sensitive to, but I can't stand it when people use it as a soap-box in a story, especially when it's so damn obvious. And the fact that they connect the Bell's haunting with the modern-day story - again, in a very "pasted on" fashion - just added insult to injury. This is, however, presented as only one (of many) explanations for the haunting that people have come up with over the years. It doesn't make much sense logically, but apparently neither do many aspects of the story in general.

So, all in all, it's a very effective scary movie, and I'm strongly considering seeing it again. It does have its flaws, but they don't really take away much from the experience of watching it.

No comments: