Studio: The Asylum
Director: Glenn Miller
Writer: Glenn Miller
Producer: Paul Bales, David Michael Latt, David Rimawi
Stars: Andrew Hellenthal, Catherine Alter, Benjamin James, James Simenc, Desi Isanova, Danielle Lozaeu, Jason Kakebeen
The Sawyer family is plagued by the ghost of the Bell Witch when they move into a haunted house in Adams, Tennessee.
Not to be confused with a 2004 movie bearing the same name, 2013’s “The Bell Witch Haunting” is a “found footage” horror film that hitches its wagon to the real-life legend of a Tennessee ghost that plagued farmer John Bell and his family in the nineteenth century. With a title that resembles that of the “found footage” poster child it tries to emulate, “The Bell Witch Haunting” is also a highlight reel of every reason why critics lament the absence of innovation in the sub-genre.
Urban folklore has it that the ghost of a witch named Kate Batts haunted the Bell family’s farmland property in 1817. Unbeknownst to the Sawyer family of “The Bell Witch Haunting,” they relocate to a house on that same Adams, Tennessee land in 2011 and strange events start taking place in their home.
The strange events begin at a birthday party for young Brandon Sawyer. Despite the average temperature for Tennessee in January being somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 degrees, the celebration takes place at an outdoor poolside barbecue. The Sawyers must live in an unseasonably warm area of Adams anyway, as they even have palm trees adjacent to the nearby woods. Plus the fair weather gives several high school girls an inexplicable opportunity to take off their bikini tops at a family affair populated by more middle-aged parents than by teenagers.
As depicted in the film, Adams is indeed a strange little town. And “little” is an understatement. Adams is so small that the exact same police officer, Officer Bungalon, takes every call whether it is 8pm or 3am. Adams either needs to beef up its police force or Bungalon needs to talk to his union rep about the terrible shifts he routinely pulls. He is being underutilized as it is for someone with the power to travel backwards in time. During one scene, the timestamp changes from 22:34pm to 20:35pm at the switch between his dashboard camera and his chest camera.
Time shifting is not the only bizarre anomaly that takes place in Adams. The Sawyers are recently displaced from Chicago. But out of the cop, the 911 operator, the priest, the electrician, the classmates, and the neighbors, not one person exhibits anything even remotely close to a Southern accent. Maybe none of the characters in the film are Tennessee natives either?
“The Bell Witch Haunting” relies on the viewer to not notice errant details, since none of the filmmakers noticed them either. Each day in the family’s life begins with a date stamp, except for a mysterious day that takes place in between the 27th and the 28th. The movie forgets to officially stamp this one into the timeline and then just soldiers along with a “so what” attitude. “The Bell Witch Haunting” does not even care enough about its own continuity to keep the chronology straight. It uses made up days like the 21th and the 22th anyway, so who knows what calendar they are using.
Blissful ignorance extends to the characters, as well. Mom fails to see the oddity in the fact that out of an entire moving box full of family albums, the only picture damage occurs directly over her daughter’s face in every single photo. Mom is similarly oblivious when her son decides to put 24/7 surveillance cameras throughout every corner of the house, including his sister’s bedroom.
Like the most problematic “found footage” films, “The Bell Witch Haunting” has trouble explaining the constant filming aspect. A number of reliable tropes are employed, including the aforementioned surveillance cameras and the teenager who receives a video camera for his birthday. As yet another budding Spielberg, Brandon’s first instinct when his sister wakes with night terrors or when his father spits up red slime is to grab the camcorder when he should be dialing 911.
And like a typical “found footage” poltergeist, the Bell Witch has an uncanny knack for knowing how to gradually ramp up her mischief. A first act of creaking doors and knocked over bric-a-brac makes way for a few bloody bodies before escalating into a full blown demonic possession. Ghosts like these always know how to play things just right for the camera. It helps that the FBI agents who created the evidence tape edited it to play just like a “found footage” horror movie usually does. They were even kind enough to splice in a few pointless montages of a family dinner, Brandon and his buddies goofing around, and teenage girls recording their web series on fashion tips. Such sequences must be crucial to the investigation in ways that the average layperson or film critic could never possibly comprehend.
An average viewer will also be certain that the screams coming from an electrician shocked to death while working on the cursed home must be part of a prank for his own series, because they sound so hilariously phony. The average viewer will be wrong. Just as wrong as believing that the stiffly delivered dialogue from Officer Bungalon might improve in his second, third, or even fourth scene.
Once the movie tires of ripping off “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” it moves on to “The Exorcist,” complete with barf made out of pea soup. Apparently, the realization was made that things could not possibly be any more derivative, so why not just go batspit boffo with a ridiculous finale, too? “The Bell Witch Haunting” desperately wants to justify itself by attaching legitimacy with its real-world connection. It stays mostly true to the particulars of the legend, but disregards respect for the audience with an overreliance on convention and a lackadaisical approach to detail. Formulaic in every way, this is more grist for the mill for anyone who wants to shake his/her head and yawn at the “found footage” sub-genre.
Review Score: 35