Scream without the wink-wink self-awareness: Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take is an entirely watchable – but by no means remarkable – teen slasher film mixed with Scooby Doo mystery. Ever since Scream’s ironic take 15 years ago, the genre has been beaten to death in mainstream cinema with scores of sequels, ripoffs, remakes, and 80s throwbacks; these days, it seems the best we can hope for is a polished turd like this from an old pro like Craven.
Soul starts things off with an extended prologue featuring the Rivertown Ripper, a knife-wielding maniac suffering from multiple personality disorder who manages to call his shrink before hacking up his wife.
Cops arrive on the scene to dispatch the Ripper, and unintentional hilarity ensues as he jolts back to life at least three times to commit further mayhem, overturning the ambulance carrying him and vanishing into the night.
Fifteen years later: local highschoolers hold an annual vigil at the scene of the Ripper’s disappearance, fighting off an elaborate puppet to ensure they make it through the next year. Among these kids is the Riverton Seven, a group each born on the same night the Ripper died; this year the task of puppet bashing falls to insecure Bug (Max Thieriot). He fails, and yeah, they’re all doomed.
Other members of the parade of stock characters that makes up the Riverton Seven: Bug’s best friend Alex (John Magaro), a put-upon outcast; Jerome (Denzel Whitaker), the token black character with a twist – he’s also blind; jock/bully Brandon (Nick Lashaway); Miss Popular, Brittany (Paulina Olszynski); Miss Weird, Penelope (Zena Grey); and Asian-American Jay (Jeremy Chu), who gets about five lines. These ‘kids’ are all supposed to have just turned 16, but they each look about 21.
One by one, they’re each disposed of in (by today’s Saw standards) not-so-gruesome fashion by the Ripper, who has returned yet again. Or has he? No, that would be too obvious and fantastical, so we’re treated to some extreme misdirection as the film becomes not a teens-being-stalked-and-murdered slasher film, but a who’s-the-murderer mystery.
Under the blatant misdirection, the film collapses. He’s the killer, the film keeps telling us, until that becomes too obvious; no, it’s him! And on and on, until we just stop caring; we can’t properly get involved with the mystery when so much time is spent misleading us. The ultimate revelation feels just as arbitrary as the final reel of Clue, which was randomly distributed in multiple versions to different cinemas.
I’ve never been a fan of Craven, who hit it big with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, two of the most successful horror franchises out there; the sketchy dream logic of Elm Street never worked for me, and Scream felt too pretentious to work on its intended level.
The rest of his filmography is littered with films of comparable quality to My Soul to Take, many worse (his best? 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes). Up next: Scream 4, opening in local cinemas in two weeks. Prediction: more of the same.