Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (2010)

22. My Soul to Take

“My Soul to Take” was supposed to be Wes Craven’s proud return to the horror genre. He hadn’t directed one of his own screenplays since 1994’s “New Nightmare.” While he wrote a novel and the regrettable English-language remake of “Pulse” in the meantime, Wes was mostly directing other people’s work. What ideas had the filmmaker been sitting on in that time? You’d think horror fans would want to know. However, “My Soul to Take” came out while “Scream 4” was all ready in active production, the sequel overshadowing the stand-alone film. I actually saw “My Soul to Take” in the theaters. Not because I planned to but because the projector broke down two minutes into “Let Me In,” forcing me to jump across the hallway to the theater showing this film. I was nearly alone in the auditorium which should give you a good idea of the public’s general disinterest in the film.

Like all of the “Scream” films, “My Soul to Take” blasts out of the gates with a semi-unrelated prologue. The opening minutes are burdened with setting up the premise. A seemingly normal man, with an expecting wife, actually has six alternate personalities, one of which is a vicious serial killer called the Riverton Ripper. Or, as an otherwise unimportant character explains, his body contains seven different souls, each at war for control. As the opening makes apparent, the Ripper personality is winning that war. After murdering his wife, his shrink, and nearly murdering his toddler daughter and a police detective, the Riverton Ripper apparently escapes into the night. Along with his son, who survives the mother’s death, six other children are born that night. Anyway, among the badly implemented CGI effects, an overly elaborate ambulance crash, terrible dialogue, jump scares, and a hilariously goofy voice, there are things worth recommending. An establishing shot of the fog-drench river and full moon is rather atmospheric while the killer stepping between two mirrors, causing numerous reflections, cleverly illustrates the man’s problems more then any leaden exposition can. All of “My Soul to Take” carries this schizophrenic tone, memorable moments struggling along aside some goofy bullshit.

In the sixteen years after the opening, the Riverton Ripper has become an urban legend, still rumored to stalk the forest around the river. The seven children gather on their birthday and the anniversary of the crime, the burnt-out ambulance turned into an altar of sorts. The way the teens discuss the specifics of the legend are slightly overdone but I like it anyway. Each of the kids adapt to the legend in their own way, some frightened, others mocking. Wes actually has a strong control of atmosphere throughout. There are numerous establishing shots of a bridge, trees, a railway, and a river, each one choked with fog. Both of these things hit sweet spots for me, perhaps making it easier for me to forgive the film’s flaws.

The teenager characters end up being one of the film’s strongest aspects. An early montage quickly establishes each one, avoiding clichés. Penelope is deeply religious, has a personal relationship with God, but somehow isn’t an overly judgmental, puritanical asshole. Brandon at first appears to be a stereotypical jock but, right before his death, gets a weirdly humanizing moment, revealing layers. Brittany follows along with the high school clique but obviously isn’t happy with it. At the center of the film is the friendship between Bug and Alex. The two are both outcasts, one dealing with obvious mental problems, the other dealing with an abusive step-father. They bound over girls and how to navigate the high school social system. The interaction between all the characters feels realistic. “My Soul to Take's” biggest attribute is it's likable cast.

At least, most of the cast anyway. Blind Jerome lacks development, his disability being his sole defining characteristic. A subplot revolves around Bug’s older sister, a vicious high school bully nicknamed “Fang.” You get the impression that Wes watched “Mean Girls” one too many times during the writing process. The movie has a long way to go towards making her likable, especially concerning her vile treatment of her younger brother. A moment where she destroys a doll house drips with overly precise symbolism. Bug joining in, destroying a rocking horse, changing out of a white t-shirt into a black one, declaring his loss of innocence, is equally on-the-nose.

Even after all these years, Craven can still string together a decent attack scene. The first kill, a chase across a bridge, builds well. A stalking scene through the school’s pool creates some decent tension, escalating noise adding to it. A particular death sticks out. The camera focuses on the victim’s white sneakers, blood slowly pouring over them, staining the shoe’s red. The characters being likable make each death actually shocking, something you can’t say for a lot of stalk-and-slash flicks.

The tension isn’t sustained, disappointingly. Almost the entire second half is contained within Bug’s home. Long scenes of the boy fighting the Ripper through the dark go nowhere, quickly becoming repetitive. A letter from the past drops into the protagonist’s lap, conveniently explaining too many details. The audience can figure out the killer through simple process of elimination. A timeline is put together too quickly, too cleanly. The climax ultimately fizzles out, the story resolving without much excitement.

The film’s primary problem is its presentation of the killer. The Riverton Ripper speaks in a ridiculous deep voice, frequently yelling overdone profanities. Often, any thrills or tension the film’s effective elements build are compromised by that damn stupid voice and the awful dialogue. The killer’s design is uninspired, looking like Rob Zombie and Michael Rooker’s ill-conceived child. Furthermore, the Ripper’s appearance makes no sense, given the information we learn at story’s end. I also dislike Bug taking on the personalities of his dead school mates, something that’s never justified and handled clumsily.

Not many people liked“My Soul to Take,” even the hardcore horror crowd. Probably because, like so many of Wes’ film, the movie has a goofy streak. Most infamous is when a kid whips up an elaborate condor costume in his bedroom, climaxing in the condor puking and shitting all over his classmates. It’s deeply silly but endearingly so. Bug’s obsession with condors, ravens, and vultures is a little odd. The movie tries to justify this but never quite makes it work. The film is awash in Craven trademarks. “My Soul to Take” is another Wes Craven film about the relationship between parents and children. The sins of the father are revisited on the son and Bug’s relationship with his adopted mother provides some emotional barring in the latter half. The goofiness continues right through to the end where a cartoon condor flies over the end credits.

Once again, I stand on the opposite side of fan and critical conscientious. I like “My Soul to Take.” The flaws are obvious and deep. I can’t blame anybody if they dislike it. However, the movie mixes likable characters, occasionally well orchestrated moments of horror, and just enough good-natured camp to keep it all interesting. It’s as much a Wes Craven movie as anything else he’s ever made. [Grade: B-]

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