Starring: Ric White, Doug Moore, Stephanie Love, Amber Bland, Hope Wade, and Frank Fox
Director: Ric White
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
When a ghost of mysterious origins and desires invades the home of John Bell (Moore) and his family, Reverend James Johnston (White) and other concerned citizens of a small Tennessee town attempt to discover the reasons for the haunting.
"The Bell Witch Haunting" is based on reports of a real-life haunting that took place over four years early in the 19th century. The haunting reportedly started without warning or apparent cause and continued until family patriarch John was driven into his grave. The spirit's activities were reportedly witnessed by hundreds of people, including President Andrew Jackson, and when they ended as suddenly as they began, a tale full of mystery, horror, and tragedy was born. Director/writer Ric White takes full advantage of everything this tale has to offer in this film.
In the film, writer/director/star White uses James Johnston's conversation with a pair of newspaper reporters working on a story about the Bell Witch Haunting as the "excuse" to tell us the tale of the harrowing events. It also, more by accident than design, drives home the point that White is the best actor in the whole movie. The difference between the way White portrays Johnston in the flashbacks--a self-assured, compassionate man of God who wants to help a good friend and righteous man rid himself of a tormenting spirit--and the Johnston of the present day--who is an embittered man driven to the brink of madness by his confrontation with an incomprehensible evil.
And incomprehensible is what the Bell Witch Ghost is from the very beginning, and its motivations and methods remain shrouded in mystery and riddles from the characters and viewers of the movie alike. As regular readers might be aware, I tend to be very annoyed with horror movies that don't give at least SOME insight into the reasons for why the events depicted happen; I don't necessarily need everything wrapped up in a neat little package, but I want some sort of explanation for or insight into the reasons why the supernatural had invaded the lives of the characters of the story.
However, there are exceptions to everything, and "The Bell Witch Haunting" is one of those exceptions. Although the opening of the film seems to provide a possible explanation of why the Bell family ends up haunted--one of the elder brothers may have shot some sort of familiar or shapeshifted sorcerer--it's far more likely the strange events during the hunt that day were simply the point at which the mysterious spirit became attracted to the family. But we never find out what the trigger was, because the ghost never tells and, try as they may, the characters never discover the truth. The haunting just grows more and more creepy until it ends in tragedy for the family. (The tragedy and horror is emphasized by a strategic placement of a scene of normalcy and happiness--a birthday picnic held for the oldest of the Bell girls-- that is ultimately shattered by the spirit as it lashes out at the family and their friends more viciously and incomprehensibly than ever before.)
Despite the lack of answers, the film ends up being a very satisfying viewing experience, a well-filmed and well-paced tale that is rich in atmosphere and that anyone who appreciates a good ghost story will be entertained by. That entertainment will flow from the very effective and creepy imagery that White fills the picture with. Despite the fact that the ghost is only seen three or four times in the entire film--and each tilme very, very briefly--its presence is felt throughout because of the creative camera angles and highly effetive lighting of scenes that White uses.
That is not to say "The Bell Witch Haunting" is perfect. The majority of the cast gives very stagy performances and most of their efforts say, "Look at me, I'm ACTING!" This feeling could have been lessened in some scenes if the editing had been tighter, but it nothing but more experience in front of cameras could have improved things enough.
The film also suffers in the audio department. It seems evident that the sound was recorded with microphones mounted on the video cameras used to shoot the film, and it is often so muddled that it's difficult to make out what is being said. It's a common problem with low budget films these days, but it's a shame that a movie that is otherwise well shot and well written should come up short in this all-important technical department.
Although flawed, I think "The Bell Witch Haunting" is one of the best ghost movies of recent years. White is a writer, actor, and director of no small degree of talent, and I think that if he had been working with a budget measured in the hundreds of thousands instead of tens, I am certain I would be giving this film a Seven rating at least.