March 17, 2011

My Soul to Take (2010)

Filmmaker Wes Craven has had extreme ups and downs through his career in the horror genre: he has redefined the genre and creating some of horror most iconic images in classics such as "The Last House on the Left", "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream"; yet, at the same time he's been responsible of creating unremarkable movies of a quality ranging from mediocre to poor, like for example "Shocker", "Vampire in Brooklyn" and "Cursed". Regardless of quality, if there's something that can be said of Craven's entire body of work is that a very specific theme continues to appear in each of his films: his particular vision of horror Americana. The monster that hides inside the suburbs, the real and imagined horrors of adolescence, the reality behind urban legends, and even the nature of reality itself; Craven has taken those themes to build up his modern American mythology. 2010's "My Soul to Take" is another slice of Craven's horror Americana, but unfortunately, it is far from being a high spot in Craven's career.

"My Soul to Take" begins 16 years ago, the small town of Riverton lived the horror of serial killer Abel Plankov (Raul Esparza), the Riverton Ripper. Plankov's murder spree ended the night when he escaped from the police and disappeared in the woods. Seven children were born that night, and soon went to be known collectively as the Riverton Seven, a light of hope after the nightmare the town lived. But legend tells that the Ripper would return to murder those seven children. 16 years later, the Riverton seven have lived with that local legend still haunting their lives, with some taking it as a legend, and others fearing it will come true. Adam "Bug" Heller (Max Thieriot) belongs to the latter group; a shy and innocent kid often taken as slow by his peers, begins to have nightmarish visions of the other teens getting murdered. His mental stability will be put to test when kids begin to disappear, and trusting only his best friend Alex (John Magaro), Bug will have to face his worst fear: the possibility that the Riverton Ripper legend will become true.

Once again, Wes Craven returns to familiar territory with a mix of supernatural horror and slasher film, all wrapped under a new urban legend of his creation: the Riverton Ripper. Interestingly, Craven sets up the origin of his legend, with the initial scenes depicting the conclusion of the Riverton murders. Flashforward 16 years later and the inhabitants of the small town of Riverton have developed their very own legend about their modern bogeyman; complete with a ritual that their heirs, the Riverton Seven, decide to perform every year to exorcise their own demons. Is the legend real or not? "My Soul to Take" is based on that question, on that doubt; and to Craven's credit, the premise is certainly promising. Unfortnately, the development of the story is pretty much a rehashing of typical elements of modern horror, elements that Craven himself helped to define in the 80s. Basically, the story begins to fall to pieces as every twist makes it feel less like an original film and more like an amateurish copy of Craven's own "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream".

In terms of execution, Craven still has that polished visual style he developed in the 80s, and "My Soul to Take" has a certain retro vibe that makes the film feel look like a product of that era. Cinematographer Petra Korner did a good job to capture that old school atmosphere of 80s teenage horror films: Riverton and its Ripper are truly at home within the elements of Craven's horror Americana. Unfortunately, all those stylistic reminiscences only make the film to look even more like a bad cover version of Craven's past glories. Full of common places, awful quick editing and some of the worst horror sequences ever directed by Craven; "My Soul to Take" crashes any hope to live up to its initial potential. Being a slasher, at least the murder sequences should be interesting but sadly, it features horror scenes shockingly unimaginative, badly set up and all in all not scary at all. Oddly, the only time when "My Soul to Take" begins to work is in the brief yet marvelous moments that develop Bug and Alex's friendship.

The acting through the film is pretty average for the most part, though some of the young actors do show potential. Leading the cast is Max Thieriot, playing the troubled teenager Bug. Wooden and stiff, Thieriot looks bored through the film, failing to capture the mixture of innocence and madness Bug has (though to be fair, it's not as if the characters were well written). Better luck has John Magaro, who plays Bug's best friend Alex. Showing good comedic timing, Magaro adds some life to the film, and is one of the cast's best elements. However, the real highlight is Emily Meade, who plays the feared leader of school's society, Fang. Meade shows real talent to build up a character, giving a lot of attitude to the role. However, like Magaro, all the effort is wasted during the last third of the film, where the film seems to betray itself and becomes another typical slasher. The rest of the cast is pretty mediocre at best, specially the adults, with Raúl Esparza being the only saving grace amongst them.

To be fair, not everything in Wes Craven's "My Soul to Take" is bad; as written above, moments that develop the character's friendship do feel like from a different film. Comedy and teenage drama are handled quite good there (the Condor scene for example), and makes one wonder if Craven would be happier at directing a teenage comedy instead of another run of the mill rehash of slasher clichés. And it is not that clichés are bad per se (done well, they work wonders), it's the poor way they are employed in "My Soul to Take" what gives it a pretty amateurish look. Lacking the post-modern black comedy of "Scream", the clichés make "My Soul to Take" to become the kind of slasher that Craven himself criticized with that film. In the end, the root of all the problems in "My Soul to Take" is its screenplay: a poorly developed script plagued with illogical twists, stereotypical characters, silly dialogs (including the killer's one-liners) and a poorly conceived mystery complete with an awfully directed scene of shocking revelations (that looks like something out of a soap opera).

The icing of the cake is the terrible decision of the U.S. distributors to convert the film to 3D in the wake of the popularity that format currently has. Since the film was conceived in 2D, the effect is minimal and ultimately a cheap ripoff. In the end, "My Soul to Take" is a pretty poor offering from legendary horror filmmaker Wes Craven, who seems to had been more focused on preparing "Scream 4" than in the making of this film. A typical rehash of common slasher elements, perhaps if "My Soul to Take" had been an early work from a novel director, its shortcomings would be a tad more forgivable. But coming from the man who redefined the genre, it's truly nothing short of a disappointment. Too bad, as "My Soul to Take" did have an interesting premise and a powerful initial sequence. It should be taken as a great example of how a group of great ideas are wasted when there is no real direction to follow.



Kevin Matthews said...

I liked this one more than I thought I would, especially the moments of possible madness (really liked the "mirror behaviour" scene) but from Craven it's ultimately a lesser flick.

J Luis Rivera said...

The mirror scene is a highlight indeed, but I ended up feeling dissapointed. Not only because of Craven being the director, but because of how conventional it ended up being.