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
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
Also offered are a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
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.