Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Soul to Take (2011) dir. Wes Craven

Logline: Exactly sixteen years after the Riverton Ripper’s bloody demise, it seems that his evil, stab-happy soul has transferred into the body of one of the seven children born on that day.

My Soul to Take has the distinction of being the other film Wes Craven directed in 2011, coming off a brief hiatus from filmmaking. It also has the distinctions of being widely panned, a flop at the box office, and needlessly post-converted into 3D (a truly baffling move once you’ve actually seen the thing). All these things considered, it’s immediately preferable to that other 2011 venture, Scream IV. While the fourth Scream wasn’t all that bad, it was sadly marred by an over-reliance on some nutty slapstick and farce that detracted from its much stronger satirical aspects (with that one, I left the theater hashing out with a friend all the different ways they could have nailed their themes perfectly, but didn’t. An unfortunate circumstance considering that at times Craven and Co. came so close.) In contrast, My Soul to Take is utterly insane from the word go, so we can’t start to complain when it further devolves into more inspired lunacy. As it stands, it’s probably one of the most successful recent slashers I’ve seen over the last few years, if for no other reason than its giddy oddball status. Make no mistake: this is not a great piece of cinema (nor even a particularly good one), but its shot through with that blatant disregard for common sense and film logic that makes it in some ways reminiscent of a few of the sloppier/more charming 80s offerings and in other ways totally unique. I can’t say I’ve seen another film quite like My Soul to Take, which may or may not be a label of praise.

Allow me to explain. The film’s general tone might be best captured by its opening prologue, which proceeds like so: we overhear a TV news story about a killer dubbed the Riverton Ripper, who has been terrorizing the town of Riverton, shortly before a man building a dollhouse for his daughter trips, face-plants, and, through the discovery of an inscribed knife, realizes that he is the schizophrenic killer. Okay, fine. Then the rest of the prologue plays out close to what seems 8x speed as crazy, inane events pile up on one another and leave us disoriented, confused, and unsure over how to take all this. It’s the same sort of lunacy we find in Scream IV’s final scene but with some added jerky editing and buckets of bloodshed—approximately 25% of which ends in actual death. In fact, the prologue seems predicated on the supposed shock of the villain comically popping back to life (ad nauseam) when such an occurrence is completely unfeasible (see: shot, stabbed, very definitely killed) in order to both taunt and/or wreak more havoc. Yet, funny as it is, it is incredibly difficult to discern whether or not this is all supposed to be taken as a joke. The police and medical staff in these scenes seem genuinely pissed off that this guy won’t keel over and die, as if it were only good manners to do so. Before the movie proper begins, there are a rash of rapid throat slashings, multiple gun shots, stab wounds, and displays of humanity. The prologue ends with an ambulance flipping and exploding. This is the first ten minutes of the film.

The remainder can best be described as “unexpected.” The film shifts its focus to sixteen years later, following a group of teenagers, the drama of their high school lives, and a masked supernatural killer out to stab ‘em all who may or may not be the crazed killer from the prologue. All fairly typical, except that Craven’s screenplay (which he wrote himself, mind you) seems more than a smidgen out of touch with contemporary youth culture (and not only because the main character, Bug, receives a circa-2003 flip phone for his birthday). The dialogue, when serviceable, seems written for a cast of eight-year-olds, while at all other times sounding like it fell from orbit. The flick’s many verbal gems (“You’re a condor; you eat death for breakfast”; “I can’t remember buying you bananas”; “If things get too hot, turn on the prayerconditioning”) make more sense out of context than within. High school politics also seem wildly off-base: the high school is run by a girl named Fang, who is about as intimidating as your little sister and who every day holds a five minute briefing/smoking session with her cronies in the Fangzone (read: girl’s bathroom) where she proceeds to outline the sale of test answers, detail the beatings that will be pummeled out, and micromanage the love lives of said cronies. My Soul to Take also branches out into the avant garde with a classroom presentation performance piece on the California condor (which weighs as much as 350 parrots, we’re told) that ranks among the most memorable scenes of filmmaking insanity that somehow snuck their way into a major studio picture.

All this, plus there are some genuinely competent aspects to the film. While the plotting is daft, the atmosphere is superbly creepy—always stormy and blue-tinged. It’s stuck in that small town suburban setting that drives me wild, where walking through the forests is preferable to taking the roads. The deaths are brutal (if you’re into that), though never well-staged. In fact, the brutality on display is much akin to what we find in Scream IV—which, if you think about the two films in conjunction, sort of deflates some of the commentary that film was making in re: the brutality of modern horror. Such bloodlust is bit more unsettling here—do these dumb but excessively childish teens deserve such wanton cruelty? My Soul to Take never gives us the time to ponder such questions. It’s a ceaselessly entertaining gust of cinematic wind. As weird as it is (and it is very, very weird), it is also clear that My Soul to Take has an internal vision for itself. In the nearly desolate landscape of modern horror, that is nothing but a boon.

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