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Haunted house

Television

Issue: "The Da Vinci craze," May 20, 2006

An American Haunting features what may be the only 360-degree horse-drawn carriage aerial flip you'll ever see on film. This ludicrous stunt is the only original or surprising element in an otherwise exceedingly dull, confused mess-an upscale horror film supposedly based on the only verified account of a spirit causing a death.

The film opens in the present day, barely giving lip service to a framing device for the "historic" tale. With her daughter experiencing nasty nightmares in a large Tennessee home, a woman reads the account of a local mother and daughter facing a similar problem 185 years earlier, recorded in a dusty, yellowed letter. The film quickly transports the audience back to that previous time, leaving the modern story dangling until a tacked-on, mirrored finale.

In 1818 Red River, Tenn., patriarch John Bell (Donald Sutherland) gets into a property dispute with an alleged local witch, and, so the story goes, brings a curse upon himself and his teenage daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood). So, naturally, creepy noises, heavy rains, and flying objects begin to afflict the Bell family. Worse still, the Bells are subjected to writer and director Courtney Solomon's stabs at creating an ominous mood through indiscriminate bursts of black-and-white or inverted photography and a swooping, swirling camera.

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Even by the meager standards of the genre, not much in An American Haunting follows any sort of logic. The final "twist" happens so fast and with so little supporting plot or character development that many in the audience will leave the theater not even knowing it occurred. Mr. Solomon's "solution" is quite unpleasant, however, so we can be grateful that this PG-13 rated film didn't explain it in greater visual detail.

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