Hollywood Product - An American Haunting

Embellished 'true' ghost story

Genre: Highly embellished "true" ghost story

The Pitch: In supposedly "the only case in U.S. history where a spirit caused the death of a human being," a noisy poltergeist torments conflicted landowner John Bell (Donald Sutherland) and his nubile daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) in 1818 Tennessee.

Body Count: Not counting a ghoulish little-girl apparition, there's one dead body. In a horror movie, one! And the demise seems to contradict the whole "spirit" thing, so what's the point?

Money Shot: When the menfolk try to whisk Betsy away in a carriage, there's a cool steadicam ghost-POV shot that goes through every room of the house, over rolling hills and finally to the racing carriage, which crashes in a perfect somersault.

Flesh Factor: The ghost has a penchant for pulling down the daughter's quilt and exposing her calves — which was totally hot in 1818.

Pop references: In the lame present-day framing device, a teenage girl has a poster of Charlize Theron's Monster over her bed. When the vengeful witch-woman (Gaye Brown) puts a curse on Sutherland, she adds, "And your precious daughter, too," like a shout-out to The Wizard of Oz.

Fashion Statements: The costumes suggest a community theater production of The Crucible. Early on, Sutherland wears a colorful, striped vest like he owns an ice cream parlor. The skeptical Professor (James D'Arcy) sports thin, bracket-shaped sideburns over his jawbone. The garments of the family slaves range from Porgy & Bess outfits to charming Mexican peasant garb.

Best Line: The Professor initially believes the daughter suffers from nightmares, but when the cast witnesses shattered windows, flying Bibles and hears metallic sound effects, Mrs. Bell (Sissy Spacek) asks, "Are we all having nightmares now, Professor?" Snap!

Worst line: "Moral turpitude, pah!" snaps the Bell family's drunken friend and amateur exorcist.

Slip-ups: I'm less bothered by the anachronistic use of early 19th-century soccer or photography than the lack of an apostrophe in the final title card's reference to "paranormal energy in a persons mind."

Tag-line: "Possession Knows No Bounds." Or isn't it "Nine-Tenths Of The Law"? One of the two, definitely.

The bottom line: For a while, Sutherland and Spacek seem to enjoy acting together, but the numbingly repetitive, painfully familiar haunting scenes (not to mention at least four it-was-all-a-dream fake-outs) drain the life of the thriller. You'll need a maximum strength poultice after this.

1 star