Wes Craven has made some terrific horror films over the years, but he’s never been particularly consistent. For every Last House on the Left or A Nightmare on Elm Street on his resume, there is also a Shocker or Deadly Friend. His new thriller My Soul to Take belongs in the latter category, but it doesn’t even feel like it was made by the same man who made Scream or tense, nasty films like The Hills Have Eyes. This movie is made with such a slack hand that it feels like the work of someone who doesn’t know what a horror film is supposed to feel like. It is utterly free of tension, and, much like the characters it depicts, wanders along, failing to surprise us, until someone puts it out of its misery.
The movie drops us right into the middle of things, which serves as an attempt to start the film off with a bang but ends up making things vaguely confusing. In the small town of Riverton, Mass., a serial killer is on the loose. He’s known as the Riverton Ripper, and uses a distinctive knife with the word “vengeance” etched into the blade. We meet Abel Plankoff (Raúl Esparza), a normal guy with a young kid and a pregnant wife, but it turns out that Abel has been losing time lately, and when he finds the Ripper’s knife in his basement he suspects the worst. Evidently, Abel has multiple personality disorder, which, as depicted by this film, rather resembles demonic possession. After many murders, car crashes and explosions, the police manage to take him down.
Cut to 16 years later, and we find out that seven babies were mysteriously born in Riverton on the same night that the Ripper was killed. The kids celebrate Ripper Day and their birthdays together. The seven kids are your normal assortment of slasher movie stereotypes. The main character is Adam “Bug” Heller (Max Thieriot), the shy outcast. Besides Bug, there’s the nerd, the Asian kid, the angry jock, the blonde cheerleader, and, in a nice change of pace, the blind guy and the hot redhead Jesus freak.
When the Riverton Seven begin to get knocked off on their 16th birthdays, questions naturally arise. Did the Ripper survive, and has he returned for revenge after all these years? Or did his soul jump into one of the babies, perhaps, and one of the Seven is now carrying on his work for him?
As it turns out, we don’t much care. Only Alex (John Magaro), the nerd, makes any sort of impression, and the rest never rise above the general description of their characters. Bug himself is supposed to be shy and bumbling, but as played by Thieriot, he seems borderline mentally disabled. This makes a bit more sense when it’s suggested that he used to be in a mental institution, but still doesn’t endear him to us. He’s hardly the most dynamic lead character for a film; it seems like he can’t even chew his food for himself, let alone catch a killer.
This is Craven’s first outing as a writer-director since 1994’s New Nightmare, and in the interim he seems to have forgotten how real people behave. Large chunks of this movie are just boring mediocrity, the same old slasher stuff we’ve seem so many times before, but there is enough outright insanity to keep us interested, even if it is the same sort of interest you might have in a car crash on the freeway.
Most of the movie is dull and by the numbers, but sometimes the characters will start behaving so irrationally, so outside the bounds of what a real person would ever do, that it becomes oddly fascinating. This can be confusing in a film in which it’s possible that the characters may be possessed by the soul of a killer, but it can be chalked up to bad writing on Craven’s part.
This description of the movie’s occasional insanity probably makes it sound more interesting than it actually is. For the bulk of its running time it is dreary, dank and cliché-ridden. Any bursts of life come from it being nonsensical and unintentionally funny, which is rather cold comfort indeed.
Despite being the first film Craven has written in a while, he doesn’t seem to have very many new ideas. Craven does seem to be eating his tail a bit here. The plot device of having a killer come back from the dead to kill teenagers is reminiscent more than a little of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but this film mixes in the whodunit aspect of Craven’s Scream movies as well.
The movie isn’t much better technically. I’m not sure whether the movie was shot in 3-D or not, but it ends up feeling like a slapdash postconversion, adding nothing to the impact of the film. Craven can do dark and spooky, but the 3-D makes it seem more murky than atmospheric. But if you’ve ever wondered what soulcrushing mediocrity looks like when it’s coming right at you, then now you can find out. Perhaps this is an important step in mainstreaming the 3-D process. No longer is it reserved for whizbang technical spectacle and visual splendor. Now, 3-D can be slapped onto every drab piece of crap that Hollywood poops out.
It hasn’t been so long since Red Eye, so we know that Craven can still crank out a taut, tense thriller when he wants to, but My Soul to Take certainly doesn’t suggest it. We can only hope that this is another example of his inconsistency, and his next film will be a return to form.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.