An American Haunting

The big selling point for “An American Haunting” seems to be that it’s based on the only case in U.S. history where a spirit caused the death of a man. That credential is cited so authoritatively in the film’s promotional materials and in the movie’s opening titles that it’s a couple seconds before you think: Wait a minute. Are you telling me the official cause of death was a GHOST? That was the undisputed medical opinion of the examiners? That a ghost killed him? I don’t think so, movie. Not even in 1820, not even in Tennessee.

The legend of the Bell Witch who tormented a Red River, Tenn., family in the late 1810s is, of course, widely disputed, and is mostly believed only by people who like to believe in ghosts anyway. But even if the story were scientifically documented and universally accepted as truth, “An American Haunting” would still be a very lousy thriller.

Written and directed by Courtney Solomon — the man who brought us “Dungeons & Dragons” in 2000 and hasn’t done anything since — “An American Haunting” firmly believes if something happens suddenly and is accompanied by a loud “sting” on the musical score, that’s all that’s necessary to scare an audience. There are no haunting images, no creepy scenarios beyond the basic “there’s a ghost in my room and it keeps rattling the doorknob.” Nope, just a lot of loud noises designed to make you jump.

The story is set mostly in 1817 and 1818, where John Bell (Donald Sutherland) is cursed by a local woman who believes he has wronged her in some business dispute. The woman, Kate Batts (Gaye Brown), declares that “darkness will fall upon you — you and your precious daughter, too!” So if you wondered whether ALL witches talk like the Wicked Witch of the West, it turns out they do.

Soon thereafter, John and his precious daughter, Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood), are indeed harassed by a violent spirit that drags Betsy around the room and rips pages out of Bibles. At first her father and mother (Sissy Spacek) think she’s just having nightmares. Then they see her suspended in midair by an unseen force and slapped around like Faye Dunaway at the end of “Chinatown.” That settles it: This house is haunted!!

For no reason at all, the story is framed by scenes of the house in 2006, where a mother and daughter live in it and are also beset by spirits. (The girl in these scenes has a poster behind her bed from the movie “Monster,” where Charlize Theron played a trailer-trash lesbian murderer. It’s such an odd, unlikely detail that I feel obligated to point it out.) The movie also offers a rather specious “explanation” for what causes the haunting, one that adheres to Hollywood’s Principle of Religious Hypocrisy: If a character is portrayed as a hardcore Bible-quoting good-faith Christian, he will turn out to be evil.

Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek deserve better than this, and both use their considerable talent to imbue the generic ghost story with more weight than it deserves. Rachel Hurd-Wood, meanwhile, conveys her character’s torment mostly by looking sleepy all the time. I guess she would be, what with the ghost pestering her all night, but still. Try to look a little scared, sweetie, not bored. Goodness knows I’m trying.

C- (1 hr., 31 min.; PG-13, lots of spooky stuff.)