Director Wes Craven must be pulling some elaborate hoax with My Soul to Take, a shockingly awful horror film that plays like a parody of the director's better work. The man who jump-started a floundering horror genre with Scream and whose last major film was the accomplished Red Eye is so far above this tone-deaf schlock that My Soul to Take has to be a joke. Perhaps, with Scream 4 on the horizon, Craven wanted to lampoon his standard mix of horror and social commentary to illustrate how bad such fusion can be when crafted by the wrong hands. This has to be a joke, because My Soul to Take may be the most nonsensical wide-release film I have ever seen.
The film begins in 1994 in Riverton, Mass., a town terrorized by serial killer "the Riverton Ripper." The killer is Abel Plankov (Raúl Esparza), a husband and father suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Before he can get psychiatric help, Abel kills his wife and several police officers and gets shot multiple times. After causing a violent ambulance crash as paramedics attempt to save his life, Abel vanishes without a trace. On the same night, seven babies are born in the town and are dubbed "the Riverton Seven." Sixteen years later, the townsfolk still fear the Ripper and mark the day of his probable death with rituals and hysteria. The Riverton Seven have the most to lose when violence returns to their small town.
Reserved protagonist Adam "Bug" Hellerman (Max Thieriot) gets beat up at school along with his unkempt friend Alex Dunkelman (John Magaro) and suffers from migraines and strange visions. When members of the Riverton Seven start dying, the others come to Alex for answers. In the first of a long list of dumb things in the film, viewers learn that the Ripper's soul may have been transferred to one of the Riverton Seven on the night of their births. One of the cops in the film, conveniently from Haiti, relays a ridiculous myth about souls living outside the body in an attempt to bolster the film's voodoo mythology.
Despite master Craven at the helm, My Soul to Take is an unmitigated failure. After its passable, abet cliché, opening, the film spirals so senselessly out of control that it is difficult to form a coherent critical analysis. From the opening scene, Craven refuses to settle on a tone, haphazardly mixing horror and comedy with what I assume is an attempt at social commentary on everything from cell phones and high school cliques to religion and mental illness. For a good thirty minutes I forgot I was not watching some lame Mean Girls rip-off complete with a sassy Queen Bee who orders the jocks to beat up Bug.
The film mimics the vibe Craven nailed fifteen years ago in Scream. Students sit in class and speak in the same wiseass dialogue that Rose McGowan and Neve Campbell ping-ponged back and forth in Woodsboro. And considering the reaction one character gives upon receiving a mobile phone for his birthday, you would think it was 1996. But unlike Scream, which stands as a pillar of self-aware terror, so much of My Soul to Take is incredibly stupid. Characters act without a shred of motivation and give their deceased classmates little more than a casual glance. Not one deed in the film has any meaningful effect on the proceedings. Everything about the Riverton Seven and the Ripper is phony, and a modern audience has surely seen it all a hundred times before.
As for the horror, it appears Craven took a bunch of neighborhood kids into his backyard, sprayed them with ketchup and instructed them to play dead. There is not a single scare or instance of creative gore to be found in My Soul to Take. Of the very few kills in the film, the majority are off-camera, and the ones shown are Lifetime movie lame. To make matters worse, Craven rips off several shots from his own famous films and horror classics like Halloween. Are viewers to assume Craven is lambasting horror films in general or simply emulating the style of a hack?
By the conclusion of My Soul to Take, my anticipation for Scream 4 had been reduced by half. Even a quickie conversion to 3D for My Soul to Take's theatrical release last fall could not mask the stench of such a rotten film. Scenes are edited together without a sense of pacing or continuity, and all the talk of souls and soul guardians gave me a headache. Nothing works here. The acting is generally terrible, the characters are grating, and I cannot pinpoint a single successful moment of terror amid the smugness. My Soul to Take would be awful if it was the work of a film student. With Craven as its writer and director, the end product is inexcusable. But I know you're pulling our legs, Wes. Too bad the only joke here is the viewer unlucky enough to watch My Soul to Take.
Rogue presents My Soul to Take on DVD with a pleasing 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. One of the only compliments I can muster for the film is that it has a certain visual competence. The transfer supports this with good detail and sharpness. Colors are bold, and many shots appear quite deep. Skin tones are lifelike, and blacks only occasionally become murky. I noticed no major instances of digital processing or compression artifacts. All in all, this is a nice transfer.
The film's 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track is aggressive, expertly balancing dialogue, effects and the score. The film's aural jolts come through loudly, and the track sets the surroundings nicely by utilizing all the speakers for ambiance. The track also handles directional noises well, and it includes a fair number of rear-speaker crashes that should lull you from a daze. French and Spanish 5.1 surround tracks and a descriptive video track also are available, as are English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.
Rogue didn't bother with many extras for the film, which is certainly a blessing. In the commentary with director Wes Craven and cast members Max Thieriot, John Magaro and Emily Meade the director attempts to clarify some of the madness, while the other participants make observations like, "Wow, it looks like it's crashing into the screen." Also included are an alternate opening (1:34), two alternate endings (3:57) and deleted and extended scenes (21:46), some of which may have actually made the film comprehensible.
One of the worst films I have seen in a long time, My Soul to Take is an embarrassing flop for horror legend Wes Craven. Utterly devoid of scares and tonally schizophrenic, My Soul to Take is a failure in almost every way. Fans of the director will want to avoid this at all costs. Everyone else can take that advice and double it. The DVD's solid specs cannot make up for the terrible feature. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.