Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Soul To Take (2010)

Sixteen years ago, a serial killer, imaginatively dubbed "The Ripper", terrorized your usual US small town. In the end, the killer turned out to be a loving family father with one daughter and another child nearly born, but also a lot of voices - one of them rather nasty - in his head. In good old slasher movie tradition, the guy took some killing, too, when the police finally caught up with him, surviving various close range shots, knife cuts, and a self-inflicted ambulance collision until he finally ended up in the local river, never to be seen again.

Now, sixteen years later, the seven children born in the night of the Ripper's death - all of them played by actors age twenty-one or older - are holding an improbable ritual of wrestling a representation of the killer back into the lake on the anniversary night of his death. And no, the film never explains how this tradition got started, and so lets its audience picture the main characters as toddlers wrestling representational evil.

This year, though, teenage meanness chooses our designated hero Bug (Max Thieriot) as the wrestler. Now, Bug's a little on the fragile side and so doesn't do his job before the police comes to break up the whole affair. Obviously, this has the expected consequence of someone dressing up in the Ripper costume going around and slaughtering teenagers. Is it just the return of a killer, or some under-explained crap about wandering souls?

I don't really share the love for Wes Craven a lot of other horror fans seem to carry around in their hearts. Admittedly, I do like his original Nightmare on Elm Street in its role as supernatural slasher movie with a brain quite a bit (as is only fair and proper), but I usually describe Craven's two early exploitation classics as "the one with the Keystone Kops" and "the one with homicidal Lassie", and loathe Scream for its responsibility for a host of movies confusing irony with an excuse for lazy writing. (I don't blame Craven for all the mediocre films in between, though. Nobody only makes important films.) Consequently, I didn't go into My Soul To Take expecting anything better than another teen slasher, probably slickly directed in a boring mainstream manner, with ill-advised "humour" to make the director look more clever. Apart from the visual slickness, that's not at all what the film delivers, though.

Sure, Craven's film is a variation of the old teen slasher formula - although one that seems strangely disinterested in the actual violence, and even dares to let some of the murders happen off-screen - with added doses of black high school comedy only a guy in his early seventies would write, but it's also completely, ambitiously insane in the most unexpected ways.

It's pretty clear Craven had ambitions of making My Soul more than just your run-of-the-mill slasher film, but I honestly don't know what kind of movie the director was trying to make instead. An air of uncertainty hangs over the film, showing itself in the film's moments of utter unpredictability hindered by its moments of complete predictability (try to guess the order of character deaths in this one, and you'll be dead wrong; try to guess the nature and identity of the killer, and you'll be dead right), in the way the characterisation swerves from stupid teen cliché to surprising complexity and back again in the course of a single scene, in the blatant idiocy of the finale (really, shouldn't a film - something that is supremely visual - try to get something visually interesting out of the soul transfer nonsense?), and in jarring tonal shifts a director and writer of Craven's experience can't have included without a purpose. Alas, what that purpose beyond weirdification might be remains completely unclear to me.

In a sense, this does of course turn My Soul to Take into a minor catastrophe, the sort of movie only people with a healthy (or unhealthy, depending on one's perspective) love for the skewed will appreciate. It's not an effective horror movie, it's certainly not a effective comedy, it's just baffling and its existence improbable beyond belief, but it's also a fascinating experience in its strangeness. There aren't many films coming out of the horror mainstream this peculiar, and while I don't think "peculiarity" is what Craven was going for (he seems much too well adjusted for that), I can't help but approve of the fact that peculiarity is what he achieved.


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