A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the movie, which claims to be inspired by a true case, involves two levels of evil curse: The first is apparently cast by an irate neighbor (here called a witch); the second is more dreadful, covered up by the first: The father sexually abuses his daughter, and she retaliates. There's loud, frightening music, several jump scenes, and spooky handheld camerawork through dark stairwells, hallways, and woods. The evil force abuses the little girl mercilessly: it drags her, rips her blanket off, slaps her, throws her against walls, appears to molest her, makes her scream repeatedly. (It also scares her little girlfriend, who sleeps over one night.) Force also attacks the father, in the form of a wolf, visible to him, invisible to everyone else. Early party scene features drunken characters. A mother poisons a father, and a 21st-century mom realizes too late that her daughter is also being abused.
What's the story?
When a 21st-century girl begins to suffer from nightmares, her mother discovers she's been reading a diary and begins reading it herself. Here begin the flashbacks about Lucy Bell (Sissy Spacek), whose family is cursed by neighbor Kate Batts (Gaye Brown) over a loan dispute. The curse shows itself as an evil force that brutally, and frequently, attacks young Betsy Bell (Rachel Hurd-Wood). Betsy's mom and dad, John (Donald Sutherland), try to help, but they're no match for the evil force. John eventually begs Kate Batts to lift the curse, and even to shoot him to save the girl (he also attempts to shoot himself), but he is soon afflicted by the force as well -- in the form of a wolf only he sees, and in convulsions, illness, and eventually, death.
Is it any good?
The overwrought, disjointed AN AMERICAN HAUNTING reportedly draws from a real life "documented" haunting in 1817 Tennessee, the "Bell Witch Haunting." This same case has inspired books (including the source for this script, a novel by Brent Monahan) and films. But while Courtney Solomon's movie is aesthetically intelligent, it does appear that something was lost in the editing: Scenes appear without clear connections or order, character motivations are lost, and logic (granted, not crucial in a scary movie) seems an afterthought.
The film proposes -- SPOILER ALERT -- that the cause of all the ruckus is John's sexual abuse of Betsy. Lucy writes, "In some way, it was a part of something that you created to protect yourself." But this "protection" is horrifically self-ravaging, and leaves Betsy damaged for life... and death. It appears that her haunting of the present-day girl is an effort to warn the mother that this daughter is also abused by her father. Be forewarned: This is a grim film. Betsy is assaulted repeatedly and viciously, a pattern that makes the movie painful to watch.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the film's elusive scares. Aside from the conventional cues (loud music, dark spaces, handheld camera, jump scenes), the movie uses implied threats and unseen forces: What are the effects of these strategies? You might also want to talk about ghosts and witches' curses, and the idea that the "true story" assumes their existence and effects.
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