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MOVIE REVIEW

For all the wrong reasons, 'American Haunting' is a horror

There's a dark, abiding mystery at the center of ''An American Haunting," and it's how on earth major stars such as Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek were talked into appearing in this film. A cringingly awful period ghost story, ''Haunting" is amateur hour all around: The script is DOA, the performances struggle to reach the level of community theater, and Caine Davidson's incessant score wouldn't pass muster on a daytime soap.

The thing barely qualifies as a movie. Trust me, you'll find more compelling drama in the historical reenactments at Old Sturbridge Village.

As written and directed by Courtney Solomon (his only other credit is 2000's ''Dungeons and Dragons," but that starred Jeremy Irons -- who does this guy know?), ''An American Haunting" purports to tell the true story of the Bell Witch, a poltergeist who tormented the Bell family of Adams Station, Tenn., in the early 1800s. The opening titles describe the case as ''the most documented haunting in American history" but neglect to mention that almost all the ''documentation" was the work of a local newspaperman whose book on the subject was published 70 years after the fact.

Aside from a few incomprehensible modern-day scenes that bracket the story, ''Haunting" takes place back on the Tennessee frontier, where local farmer John Bell (Sutherland) gets into a land dispute with neighbor Kate Batts (Gaye Brown), who's rumored to be a witch.

Indeed, strange things begin to happen in the bedroom of oldest daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood, Wendy in the most recent ''Peter Pan"): Bedcovers fly off, and the girl is held by an unseen force in midair while being repeatedly slapped. John and his wife, Lucy (Spacek), are horrified, and even a skeptic like handsome young schoolteacher Mr. Powell (James D'Arcy) comes around when the crucifixes start flying off the walls.

Unfortunately, ''Haunting" doesn't have a plot, per se, so much as one lame spectral assault after another, followed by a twist ending that only confuses the issue. Solomon films it all through a misty veil that suggests a feminine hygiene ad, and the camera rockets around so insistently that physical nausea is added to aesthetic pain. If the director is saying anything here, it's ''We've got a Steadicam and we're not afraid to use it."

The actors deliver their lines and look for the available exits. Sutherland still has his ''Pride and Prejudice" hair on and is as professional as he can be under the circumstances, but Hurd-Wood and Spacek appear to have been stunned, either by a heavy object or the script or both. ''Haunting" gets points as easily the worst film Spacek has appeared in; Hurd-Wood is still young, of course, and Sutherland -- well, he'd show up for a wedding video if the food was good.

At certain points, you may wonder if ''An American Haunting" is meant as parody. A couple of shots of Betsy passed out on her schoolroom desk like a drunken frat girl almost seem calculated to get a laugh. But then the camera staggers off once more and the music kicks into aural overdrive and you realize these people are serious -- astoundingly inept, yes, but serious.

Perhaps a few credulous moviegoers will buy it, but the rest will write it off as one more regional ghost story gone flat-line on the big screen. Even so, ''An American Haunting" sets the bar at a new low: It makes ''The Blair Witch Project" look like a masterpiece of world cinema.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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