Graced with an unusually strong cast and claims that it is based on a true story, An American Haunting positions itself as an alternative to the current crop of ultra-violent horror films. Ambitious but not especially distinguished, it is bound for the same limbo that imprisons its ghostly subject.

While it opens with a terrified teen running through a contemporary snowy forest, the film quickly flashes back to 1817 Tennessee and the home of wealthy farmer John Bell (Donald Sutherland). His daughter Betsy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) is at the age when girls discover flirting. At a Christmas party she tries to persuade her teacher, Richard Powell (James D'Arcy), to dance with her, drawing her father's worried attention.

Bell faces greater trouble when he is charged with usury at a church court. Found guilty, he is roundly cursed by his neighbor and victim Kate Batts. Soon, Bell is being attacked by spectral wolves. A presence invades his house each night. Betsy receives the brunt of the torment. She is levitated by an unknown force, her bedding hurled about. She falls into swoons, and sees a small girl who has the ability to dematerialize.

Bell turns to his friend James Johnston (Matthew Marsh) and to Powell for help. But no one can explain the banging, sudden gusts, broken windows, locked doors, and illnesses that afflict the Bell household. That is until Bell's wife Lucy (Sissy Spacek) deduces an awful secret, one that she records in a diary.

Despite many books and articles, no one has ever adequately explained what happened to the Bell family, a tradition that continues in this film. Writer-director Courtney Solomon manages to cast a modern spin on the story, but it is one that could be regarded as the least imaginative explanation possible.

Solomon's style aims for the tried-and-true, circa 1968. It's just not very scary, unless you find the prospect of period speech and costumes frightening. An American Haunting unfolds as a series of toothless jolts accompanied by grating musical stings. The jangling, insistent score overwhelms the rest of the film, including Sutherland's finely realized performance as a proud patrician undone by the unknown. Perhaps remembering her start in films like Carrie, Spacek is equally accomplished in a smaller part. But they are unable to give weight to a pedestrian version of an obscure story. Hardcore horror fans are about the only conceivable audience for An American Haunting. Perhaps they will be inspired to find out what usury is.

-Daniel Eagan