Who the hell sits there and reads the copyright notice on the TV screen before the actual DVD starts playing? I do. And I noticed a typo in the one on The Bell Witch Haunting.
That’s understandable: The Bell Witch Haunting is an independently produced DVD, made available directly from the filmmakers. Not everything is expected to be big-budget perfect. Aside from that little glitch, the rest of the packaging and the menus are nicely presented. The cover is very professional-looking (better than a lot of studio-produced DVDs) and the menus are well laid-out and easy to navigate.
But how is the movie itself? Even though it’s like qualifying “that’s pretty good… for a girl” I have to say The Bell Witch Haunting is “pretty good… for an indie.” The acting is a rather uneven (some of the players are very over-the-top, as though they’re onstage projecting to that guy in the back row) and the cinematography is all over the place (mainly suffering from very low contrast in the darker scenes, and mismatched color and contrast from cut to cut). However the story is well-written, the actors who portray the haunted Bell Family are quite good, and the care taken to portray the 1800s costumes and set design in an authentic manner is obvious.
You don’t have to be from Tennessee or be a phantom-fanatic to know of the Bell Witch Haunting: It’s one of the more famous supernatural stories in American history (even President Andrew Jackson got in on the act — he was quoted as saying, “I vow I would rather fight the entire British Army single-handed than face this witch again!”). The movie is meticulously true to the accounts given at the time, and is based in large part on the memoirs by one of the family, John Bell Jr., who was a child during the four-year ordeal at the greedy, ghostly hands of the mercurial Bell Witch.
The events took place in Robertson County, Tennessee from 1817 to 1821, in which a cruel and malicious spirit plagued John Bell (focusing its hatred mainly on him and his 13-year old daughter Betsy), engaging him in a terrifying fight to save his wife, his children… and his own life. The haunting started as unexplained noises around the family’s home; scratching and knocking sounds soon progressed to the cries of animals fighting, chains being dragged around and banging sounds on the outside walls. It wasn't long before the ghost came inside, and the Bell children began complaining of more terrifying things, like having their bed covers snatched off and being touched and pinched by an invisible entity.
All of this is played out very well in the movie, obviously owing to the film’s dedicated writer/director, Ric White (who also plays a role). The movie is truly scary in places and it does crackle with real suspense… Don’t watch it with the lights off! (And if you like cute little bunny-rabbits, you will not like what happens to the family pet, Mr. Fuzzy…)
The extras on the DVD are really in-depth and informative. I don’t mean this as disrespect to the dramatic impact of the film, but I actually found the “making of” documentary even more interesting and entertaining than the feature. It’s not only very informative in regards to what it takes to make an independent film, but it also reveals a lot about the legend and the recorded history of the Witch’s haunting. We learn that White “was warned by several people not to make a film on the Bell Witch.” He reveals that “Several production companies have tried over the years and something always happens and the projects are never completed.” Lots of spooky, even dangerous things happened during and after the filming. But the production pressed on, and despite very adverse conditions, a respectable little movie was made. The filmmakers had two focus groups come in to watch rough cuts of the film, and they took their advice on what to cut and what to keep. Mr. White is passionate about the project, and is very well-spoken — it’s a pleasure to watch that after seeing so many Hollywood butt-kissing Making-Of featurettes on the usual studio-produced DVDs. The behind the scenes featurette lasts about 40 minutes, as do the deleted scenes.
While The Bell Witch Haunting is not a “slick” movie (again: The cinematography really drags it down) I do recommend the DVD for fans of indie horror, ghost stories, and especially those interested in learning more about the fascinating, truly scary legend of The Bell Witch.
by Staci Layne Wilson