Writer/director Wes Craven has made some truly remarkable movies and is rightly considered a master of the horror genre. I could watch some of his films again and again, difficult as they may be at times, because they have real power. However I would not watch My Soul to Take even one more time because it’s a complete letdown.
Heralded upon its release as the first film Craven both wrote and directed since the criminally underrated Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in 1994, My Soul to Take was clearly intended to return Craven to the fertile ground he had tilled in the original Freddy Krueger outing. My Soul to Take was populated with teenaged actors, was set firmly in a normal, everyday high school, and the threat arrayed against them was amorphous, strange and unquestionably evil. Certainly all the ingredients were there to create something at least interesting, if not earth-shattering, so it’s truly puzzling how a normally assured creator like Craven managed to stumble so badly.
The film begins by introducing Abel Plenkov (Raul Esparza), a seemingly normal, loving father and husband who harbors a secret even from himself. Thanks to a potent combination of schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder, he has carried on a double life as a serial killer called the Riverton Ripper. When he discovers the truth about himself, he goes after his pregnant wife and daughter, only to be gunned down by the police. The sequence is very much over the top and redolent of mad slasher clichés and is our first indicator that something is not quite right with the film.
Sixteen years later, the town of Riverton is at peace. The Ripper is a deliberately forgotten part of its history, except by the teenagers who carry out a strange ritual by the riverside in which an effigy of the Ripper is confronted by one of seven teens born on the day the Ripper died and ceremonially destroyed. It’s a highly involved tradition and one that doesn’t seem like it could actually happen. At the observance, shy, awkward teen “Bug” (Max Theriot) is forced to stand against the faux Ripper, but he fails to do his part. Will this violation of the institution lead to dire consequences? Well, it wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if something bad didn’t come calling in short order.
Time and again while watching My Soul to Take, I found myself thinking about A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film that really projected Craven’s name into the stratosphere. Sure, he’d done some visceral horror stuff previously, but he created his most widely recognized and memorable villain in that movie. Freddy Krueger was so instantly iconic that it’s easy to forget that he’s barely in the film at all. What happens with the rest of the cast is vastly more important, and we as an audience cared about that part of the movie because Craven’s teenaged characters were so well drawn. Now maybe it’s because a lot of time has passed since Craven was in high school and at age 70 he no longer had even the remotest connection to what the youth of America are actually like, but his characterization of his protagonists is so far removed from reality that Bug and his friends don’t ring true at all.
To this you may fairly ask, “So what?” but I submit to you that a horror story rises or falls on the basis of its characters. If you as an audience member don’t buy the people who are in danger as people, then there’s no reason to care whether they live or die. Sure, Craven nails the types of his characters — the jock, the ice queen, the nerd, the outcast — but there’s nothing more to these kids than that. Their dialogue sounds like dialogue and the things they do are governed strictly by the expectations of the screenplay and not on human emotions.
It doesn’t help that the film, by and large, isn’t particularly horrific. Whenever someone died, I got the distinct impression that they were dying solely because no one had been killed in ten or fifteen minutes and it was time for another death. When you’re thinking about the mechanics of horror-story telling while watching something that’s meant to scare you, or at least keep you on the edge of your seat, there’s a problem.
Though I didn’t particularly care for the film — as should be plainly obvious at this point, I think — I will say that the young actors really do give it their all. They don’t have a lot to work with, that clunky dialogue being just the beginning of their problems, but they gamely work their way through the paces set for them and by and large acquit themselves well.
I will also say that visually Wes Craven still has it. His early films were almost deliberately ugly, but after a while he started to show his stuff, especially as his budgets got bigger and bigger. I don’t know how much My Soul to Take cost, though I’m willing to guess that it wasn’t much as far as such things go today, but it’s still more than he had for anything he did in the old days and he doesn’t waste a penny of it. Given that Craven has had some success working from other people’s scripts, and in fact had his biggest hit when serving solely as director, I have to say that he is probably best left to doing that. The man has skills, so it’s a real shame when they are put to the service of such a problematic screenplay.
My Soul to Take is clearly an attempt to capture lightning in a bottle again and it just doesn’t have what it takes. Though the film received a critical drubbing when it was released, and audiences stayed away in droves, I was fully prepared to give the movie the benefit of the doubt thanks to Craven’s largely excellent track record. So no one is more disappointed than I am to report that My Soul to Take doesn’t have it. I hope it’s not the last time Craven directs horror, because this would be a terrible note on which to end.