APRIL 23, 2010
When I announced on Twitter that I was watching An American Haunting for my daily movie, someone responded that they were surprised I hadn't seen it. It's a simple enough explanation though - it was released prior to the birth of HMAD, and thus I presumably had much better things to do with my time than go see the new film from the guy who made the fucking Dungeons & Dragons movie (which I saw in theaters!). That, plus I thought it was a period haunted house movie, something I have little interest in even now.
So I was sort of pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a hodgepodge of a whole bunch of movies, including The Exorcist, The Entity (yes, in THAT way, though it's not a recurring plot element), Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Evil Dead (I guess Courtney Solomon only had access to the "E" section of his alphabetized DVD collection when writing his script). The movie wasn't very good, but I can say this much - I never knew what the hell could happen next, since it didn't fit the template of any particular subgenre. Though now that I realize the "E" thing, I am retroactively disappointed that the film doesn't have any obvious reference to Eye See You, the Sylvester Stallone slasher film that went DTV.
Anyway, the film definitely suffers from two major flaws. First is an unfortunate wraparound that takes up screentime, a big problem when the main part of the film ends so suddenly and we go back to the present to wrap up THEIR storyline (also in a rushed, unfocused way). So we have two vague and anticlimactic endings instead of one good one. It also starts the movie off on an odd note, as we see a teenaged girl's room with a poster of Monster. Now, I'm not going to assume that no 16 year old girl has a poster of the Charlize Theron serial killer movie in her room, but I WILL assume that it is pretty rare, and when you're drawing characters in broad strokes so you can quickly identify with them (since they don't have enough screentime to be developed properly), it's best to go with something a little more traditional. I actually suspected that the films shared a producer or something, and looked at the resumes for each credited producer (there are many) to see if that was the case, but none appeared to have worked on Monster (nor did the production designer or any one else in a position to work in a little in-joke, that I could find anyway), nor were the films released by the same studios. Weird.
The 2nd flaw is far more crippling, however - they don't spend enough time developing anything or anyone before the ghost starts attacking the girl. The family dynamic isn't even completely clear yet, and the film already switches to "3rd act of Exorcist" mode. There's also a crucial subplot involving the patriarch (Donald Sutherland) screwing someone with tax payments for some land, but it's presented so abruptly I had completely forgotten about it by the time Solomon returned to it, which is a big problem when we're supposed to be shocked by its revelation. When any "haunting" type movie focuses on one person, it's crucial to develop that character as well as the ones who are being affected by it (in this case, her parents). We never really see the girl being normal, so what do I care when she starts being haunted? Exorcist may be slow at first, but the movie simply wouldn't work without a few scenes of Regan AND her mother living their life as normal, so you can really see how Pazuzu fucked things up for them.
Atmosphere is also pretty important, but Solomon provides very little. I have no idea what purpose it serves to constantly switch to the ghost's POV (in black and white no less) and zoom around, or at one point do a full blown "fly" through the woods and house scene (there's the Evil Dead stuff for you). It works for Raimi because the plot itself is wacky. This is a movie that's ultimately about the pain of being sexually abused by one's father (really), and the revelation seems even more tasteless when you consider how "exciting" Solomon tries to make a lot of the scare scenes. If he was trying to misdirect us, he succeeded, but I'm not sure if it was the right approach - the movie didn't even hint at the idea that Sutherland may have been abusing her. You can't throw someone off track when they weren't looking in that direction to begin with.
Oh and the score always sounded like "Making Christmas" from Nightmare Before Christmas, and "Tender Shepherds" from Peter Pan (the latter being all the more amusing since the girl being haunted is the same one who played Wendy in the 2003 update of Pan). And in the former's case, this just exacerbated the fact that they didn't do a very good job of selling the early 19th century period. The costumes and set dressing is fine, but everyone acts and sounds like they do nowadays. In fact, all I could think of was that Solomon and his team should have made The Village, because this movie came across like that one was supposed to be - modern day folks pretending its the 19th century.
All that said, it's never really boring, and it's short enough (again, to a fault) to make for some decent at home entertainment. Sutherland and Sissy Spacek are always welcome on my screen, and while they are ultimately inappropriate, the ghost attacks are frenetic and ridiculous - the ghost is fond of slapping the girl around and tossing her around the room (I wonder if psychiatrists use this approach when dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder patients, since we are told the ghost is essentially just trying to make her remember being abused). So if you're watching the movie for the first time, it's perfectly OK to laugh! Second time though, you're kind of sick.
What say you?