Up till now, Scream Factory's release slate has been anchored almost entirely around '80s horror flicks...y'know, movies that are part of iconic franchises, were helmed by some of the genre's biggest names, or by all rights should've
been cult classics. By a margin of nearly a quarter-century, Dead Souls is far and away the most recent production to claw its way into Scream Factory's catalog, and...well, some things are better left buried.
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Adapted from the novel by Michael Laimo, this 2012 Chiller TV original opens with a priest puttering away at his family's farmhouse. His tween-aged daughter is bopping to Depeche Mode in her bedroom, Mom's struggling with a nasty tummyache, and little Daniel is palling around with his year-old baby brother. All of a sudden, Pop snaps. He ends the family dog's incessant barking with a whack of a shovel. From there, he walks into the house proper and, one by one, coldly and calmly murders every last trace of his flesh and blood. Unable to find wherever it is that the since-slaughtered David hid baby Bryan, Father Conroy approaches his homemade crucifix, wraps a length of rope around his waist, and doesn't so much as grunt as he hammers the first nail into his palm.
Johnny Petrie (Jesse James) spent the next seventeen years growing up around all sorts of crazy, but nothing like the grisly fate the rest of his family suffered. Hell, he didn't even know the truth about his parentage until an estate lawyer contacted him out of the blue. With the nutjob he thought was his mother (Geraldine Hughes) in the looney bin, there's nothing to stop him from making the drive up to Maine. The lawyer (Jaiden Kaine) just wants to get a couple of quick signatures and dump this sprawling chunk of farmland on the market; still reeling from learning that everything he knew is wrong, Johnny wants to take the time to explore the place. He quickly finds that he's not alone, and no, I'm not just talking about the foxy squatter (Magda Apanowicz) who's recently set up shop there. Johnny's presence has reawakened some dark force that has been dormant for nearly twenty years, and it's now hellbent on finishing what the boy's late father had started...
Dead Souls opens with a hell of a roar. Despite not sopping the screen in splatter, the slaughter throughout the prologue is unrelentingly brutal and intense. I mean, pretty much all I do is sit around and watch horror flicks, and those opening moments still had me recoiling on my couch and half-shouting "Goddamn!"...which happens to be awfully appropriate given the fucked-up religious imagery that soon follows. Dead Souls' biggest problem is that it never comes close to recapturing that same level of intensity. It feels like right around an hour of the flick is just Johnny and his, um, houseguest Emma walking around the place, and every once in a while you see a ghostly apparition pop into frame for a half-second. Don't get me wrong either: I love atmospheric horror. Ghost stories often work best as slow burns, and I'm writing this as an avid admirer of the rather subdued likes of The Changeling and The Innocents. I don't want to see overcranked computer-generated
spook effects, but...I don't know, Dead Souls careens way too far over in the other direction. It doesn't build much of an unnerving atmosphere, I didn't find myself drawn into Johnny's plight or his family's dark past, and hardly any of the scares manage to connect. Even when all hell starts breaking loose in the third act and the dead rise, it still pales in comparison to the savage prologue.
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I'm not going to be snarky or condescending here. I mean, Dead Souls is a well-made movie. There's no clunky dialogue here that's going to make you cringe or groan. Some of the supporting performances are pretty hamfisted, but the main players acquit themselves well enough, and it's always a thrill to see genre legend Bill Moseley score a good bit of screentime. You can definitely tell that they're shooting in a hand-to-God rundown farmhouse rather than a hastily-thrown-together set, and that authenticity unquestionably adds to the atmosphere. Some of the scares are botched -- a snarling dog that exudes just about zero menace and Johnny taking an awkward tumble in the barn -- but otherwise, all of that's generally handled deftly enough. It's just that there's not a lot about Dead Souls that stands out as especially distinctive. It's all very familiar and overly okay. This is the sort of movie I might watch on Chiller (y'know, if Charter carried it) with a politely indifferent expression on my face and completely forget about eight minutes later, but there's nothing about Dead Souls that really screams out for a twenty dollar purchase or a second viewing, ever. Rent It.
I've gotta admit to not being a huge fan of this general look. The photography throughout Dead Souls is cold, sterile, and overly digital in appearance, and it just...looks like a TV movie. The flattish contrast and desaturated palette leave Dead Souls visually indistinguishable from 88% of the indie horror flicks coming down the pike anymore, and the image can get pretty noisy under limited light. On the upside, Dead Souls is crisp, detailed, and unmistakably HD, and I couldn't spot any sputters or stutters in the authoring. Just not my kind of thing, I guess.
Dead Souls has been encoded with AVC and gets to lounge around on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The movie's served up at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, the same as the original Chiller airings.
Dead Souls features two 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one in 5.1 and the other in plain-jane stereo. The six-channel mix is pretty solid. Like a lot of made-for-TV movies, Dead Souls doesn't really take advantage of the lower frequencies, with the subwoofer really only making an impression when punctuating the score. This isn't one of those big, booming jump scare stings sorts of movies, by the way. There's some decent atmosphere lurking in the surrounds, including some discrete creaks and eerie sounds as Johnny and Emma skulk around the house, a little directionality to a haunting lullaby, and even a few cross-channel pans. Dialogue is consistently balanced cleanly and clearly throughout, only occasionally marred by
some high-frequency noise. Nothing aggressive or incendiary, and it's not worlds removed from what I'd expect out of a shiny, new DVD, but it's a solid effort just the same.
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Also offered are a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
- Audio Commentary: I know I sound pretty indifferent about Dead Souls as a movie, but geez...! I really love this commentary track with director Colin Theys, screenwriter John Doolan, and producer Andrew Gernhard. It's just about everything I love about the best commentaries: it's fast, it's funny, it's bursting at the seams with personality, and they really do a brilliant job giving you a sense of what it's like to be a part of the crew. Among the highlights are how tough it is to cast a family-butchering priest role, pointing out how much CG there is that you never would've noticed otherwise, filming in a room where someone really had died, the different ways they considered approaching this adaptation, confirming that author Michael Laimo's last name really is pronounced "Lame-O", and even flap-rockin' Porta Potty games. If you do wind up buying or renting this Blu-ray disc, the commentary is pretty much an essential listen.
- Bloopers (8 min.; HD): Dead Souls scores one of the best outtake reels I've seen in a really long time, although you kinda need to listen to the audio commentary to really get some of what's going on here.
- Set Tour (6 min.; HD): Shot right after principal photography had wrapped, director Colin Theys gives viewers a self-shot-an'-self-narrated tour of the set of Dead Souls.
- TV Spots (5 min.; HD): ...and a helluva lot of 'em too, clocking in at four and a half minutes, all told.
Unlike almost every other Scream Factory release, Dead Souls isn't a combo pack, so you only get a Blu-ray disc out of the deal. There's no reversible cover this time around either, although there is still a slipcover.
The Final Word
Dead Souls is sort of like the horror equivalent of an old pair of sneakers. It's familiar, it doesn't challenge you, it's not something that demands a lot of your time and attention, and you can just slip right into it. Okay, maybe I could've come up with a better analogy than a pair of shoes, but you get what I mean. Dead Souls is okay -- I sincerely have nothing mean or sarcastic to say about it! -- but this is easily the most forgettable movie with the Scream Factory logo stamped on it. I just want more out of my horror than "eh, it's not bad", y'know? Rent It.