I remember watching Michael Jordan try to make a comeback after his first retirement from basketball. He still stuck his tongue out when driving the lane, but he rarely made it to the hoop anymore. His game was off, and it seemed like there was nothing he could do to get it back. I had the same feeling watching Wes Craven’s newest picture, “My Soul to Take.” “Nightmare on Elm Street” is a classic, “People Under the Stairs” was a surprise gem, and “Scream” revitalized a genre, so it is not a stretch to say that thename Wes Craven was, at one time, pseudonymous with horror. After watching his latest outing that seems to be no more.
From the opening scene it is obvious that this film is not going in the right direction, though it would be hard to say which direction would be right. Somewhere in the sleepy town of Riverton a serial killer, the Rivington Ripper, is murdering women. This information is spoon fed to us by a television being watched by a pregnant woman. She calls downstairs to her husband who happens to be in the basement with the same knife the killer has been seen using. From there it is almost impossible to describe what happens next because the rest of the opening sequence is convoluted to the point of incomprehension. It is clear that this man, Abel Plenkov (Raúl Esparza), is a bad guy, but the why and the how of it are far from easy to grasp. There is a psychiatrist, a three year old daughter, a neo-natal nurse, and a fiery car crash, all thrown in the mix, and presumably all will have some resonance later in the picture. Typically horror movies start off with this type of slasher intro, however in the likes of “Scream,” Craven managed to make them tense, and scary, where this beginning is too jumbled to be eerie, and the moments meant to give you a start are telegraphed minutes in advance.
We cut to sixteen years later where the Riverton Seven – the seven kids born on the same day of Plenkov’s capture, and maybe death, maybe escape – gather for a yearly ritual dubbed Ripper Day. The legend has it that on that day the Rivington Ripper will come back to kill all seven kids born on the day he died, or escaped, or something. It is a clichéd horror set up with a finite number of victims, a couple red herrings, and it would have been fine if things had progressed as though most of these pictures do. Unfortunately it doesn’t.
The film lingers on the one social outcast of the group, Bug Hellerman (Max Theiriot), who is cute and dopey in the way that makes the nerdy girls love him longingly, the popular girls like him secretly, and the jock guys want to beat him up openly. He’s damaged in a way that only movie characters are damaged, though Craven doesn’t really give enough of his back story, and Theiriot does not give the character enough personality, for us to identify with, or at even at least like him.
The supporting characters do not fare to well either. Nick Lashaway’s rude bully, Brandon, has a few funny lines, but the actor does not commit enough to being a real ass to make take the role over the top where it belongs. The bitchy “Mean Girl,” Fang (Emily Meade), could have been fun, but her part in the film feels truncated, and her ties to the overall Ripper storyline is both predictable, and, at the same time, not fully fleshed out. Bug’s best friend, Alex, is the dirty pseudo-stoner character who should be fun and funny, but really comes off as creepy. Craven’s script is partly to blame, but actor John Magaro doesn’t help matters. He and Theiriot have no chemistry, and make it seem as though they only met on set the first day of shooting, and did not really hit it off. The only high point of either of their performances is a mirror mime scene in the high school hallways that is not as creepy as Craven intended, but well done just the same.
Acting aside it is Craven’s storytelling, and direction in general that are off their game. For a teen slasher film you show up for the killings, and stay for the character. The latter is almost non-existent, and unfortunately the former is nothing new or fun either. Shootings, stabbings, and the like are all Craven delivers, none with the flare of the worst of Freddy Krueger’s killings. And when they come, the deaths are all clumped together throwing the pacing of the picture all off. Part of the fun of this type of film is the tension, the chase, trying to figure out who is going next, but Craven stacks three to four slayings right on top of each other making the beginning and middle of the film really kill heavy, with the ending just left to be a confusing mess.
The largest issue with the film is that there is no underlying theme to latch onto, no through line that tethers the audience to the narrative. Bug’s supposed “Coming-of-age” storyline is the obvious choice, but isn’t developed enough to serve as the backbone of the film. As a result the film flounders from beginning to end.
And even with this unmitigated disaster of a film I still want Wes Craven to succeed. After giving such joy with some of his earlier work it is heartbreaking to see his films slipping off so much. For every “Last House on the Left” he is allowed a “Vampire in Brooklyn” and a “Cursed,” but as the flops roll out that balancing act is starting to teeter in one direction. One can pray that “Scream 4” can tip the scales back in the right direction, but after watching “My Soul to Take” it might take more of a box office hit to do it, he is going to need a slam dunk.
El Luchador Rating: 1 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)