EXPECTATIONS: Growing up with Wes Craven movies is both a Deadly Blessing and a Cursed, if you get my drift. Once every five years or so, the stars align and Craven shits out a sparkling gem: A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, New Nightmare and Scream, and only one of those is an unqualified masterpiece. To compromise, we have the Vampires in Brooklyn, the Music of My Hearts and the Red Eyes -- you know, the dregs -- and in the middle, we learn to take some small measure of joy in the Shockers.
The question is, where will My Soul to Take, with its year of reshoots, its 3-D effects added in post and its 9% fresh rating on the Tomatometer, fall in Craven's hierarchy?
Will it prove that sometimes even good directors can go nearly 14 years without making a decent movie?
Will it justify my assertion, once and for all, that sometimes the conglomerated critical consensus remains dead wrong in the face of horror, a genre already on shaky ground with and generally misunderstood by the critical-industrial complex?
REALITY: Dead last, yes and no, respectively.
In 1975, a full three years after completing The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven adopted the working name "Abe Snake" to write and direct a porno called The Fireworks Woman. I haven't seen The Fireworks Woman, but even if it consisted solely of an hour-long take of a woman scorching her balloon knot with mis-orificed bottle rockets, it would still be a better film than My Soul to Take.
This isn't hyperbole: As far as studio films from respected directors go, My Soul to Take isn't just one of the worst films of the year or the decade. My Soul to Take is one of the worst films of all time. Its plot isn't a puzzle so much as a catalyst for puzzlement, like you're assembling one of those all-black 5,000-piece puzzles and count your pieces three times before you realize Baby Tyler ate the corner pieces and most of the edges. There's no rational starting point for a depiction of the plot -- no rational conclusion either, for that matter.
After a curiously strong 10-minute opening, the plot falls apart. Sometimes horror characters commit astounding feats of stupidity late in the film to advance the story. In My Soul to Take, they can't even wait 11 minutes. Sixteen years after the likely-but-unconfirmed death of the Riverton Ripper, a schizophrenic who pledged to "get them all next time," the seven children born at the time of his death convene for the latest iteration of an annual tradition in which they light some candles near the place where he was last seen and sacrifice an effigy to ward off the malevolence of the Ripper, whose seven distinct personalities, they believe, exist in each of them.
Writing "vengeance" on your ridiculous, blood-stained knife isn't the best way to avoid attention, kid.
Unfortunately, the sheriff, who was a young deputy in his initial confrontation with the Ripper and who believes in this mumbo-jumbo horseshit, is so very eager to betray his own beliefs before the second reel that he interrupts their little pagan party before they have a chance to off the effigy. Then, the murders begin, and that's the last time the plot makes even a bit of sense. One hour later, two of the very few surviving characters bring the film to a grinding halt as they engage in a very gentlemanly 20-minute conversation about the events that have transpired and potential conclusions based on their (and our) very incomplete information.
Craven is so strongly attached to unnecessary complications (in a plot that steals liberally from A Nightmare on Elm Street and Shocker and makes less sense than either) that he would sooner turn his protagonists into a Greek chorus for a maddeningly long stretch than pare away the red herrings, the reversals of character, a ludicrously obvious twist that robs the plot of its last bit of straightforwardness, trite spirit-babble about souls and reincarnations, pity blowjobs in the woods and God knows what else. This isn't the work of a man stumbling his way to his next masterpiece; it's the work of a 71-year-old who's surrendering his last shred of sanity on the way to a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of Hollywood. Or maybe he'll be the type to rent a motel room by the week.
In The Last House on the Left, the main thrust of the story frequently gave way to musical interludes driven by a flute and comical sketches about the two most inept cops this side of Superbad. In the years since, with a lot of practice and more than his share of missteps, Craven became a consummate professional, so even when his films failed on the screenplay level, they were at least airtight when it came to the other nuts and bolts of filmmaking. Say what you will about Scream 3, Cursed or Red Eye, but at least Craven drew the best possible performances out of the actors given the casting and captured the prettiest possible picture with a camera given the budget. Here, he seems to have regressed.
After a short period of uncertainty (the first 30 minutes or so), the audience at my screening decided it was OK to laugh. But since My Soul to Take isn't quite bad enough to qualify as an unintentional comedy a la The Room or Snakes on a Plane, the laughter hewed to the more nervous kind, the laughter emitted in staccato bursts after long periods of silence as even the most cinematically uneducated Joe in the room realized there was something deeply wrong with what they were witnessing, even if he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Thankfully, I can: Due to bad coaching or reshoots or a just plain awful script, characters respond to any given situation in the least appropriate way possible without being too obvious about it, as if the screenplay were written in Farsi, translated into slang and translated again into the Queen's English.
They politely ask for b-jobs (Craven's word, not mine) in the face of impending doom. They shout FUCK YOU! at the slightest provocation. There's an uncomfortable reference to a character's race (yeah, the black kid couldn't be the reincarnated Ripper because, heh, a black serial killer?). There's an appallingly improbable scene in which a character dons a fully functional condor suit to spew fake vomit and feces on the class bully. There's the main character, Bugs, an odd nickname since he neither looks like a rabbit nor engages in an obsession with insects; as we're reminded throughout the film, he has a thing for the California condor, which is about as far from a bug as My Soul to Take is from good filmmaking.
See it or don't see it; there's an argument for each. See it if you want to experience the sort of bad filmmaking that isn't so bad it calls immediate attention to itself; it's insidious, and actually leaves one feeling more uncomfortable than the horror scenes. Avoid it if you value your sanity or can't stomach the thought of paying a 3-D surcharge for a film that is 3-D in name only. Rent it on home video if you want to experience the madness at a discount, while still giving your hard-earned money to Wes Craven, one way or another -- he may have flown the coop, but he seems like a helluva guy. Best advice? Mail him a check for $9.25, which he can cash with two caveats: He'll seriously consider a moratorium on earning writer and director credits for the same movie, which is probably the cause of all his shortcomings, and he'll seriously consider his retirement options. That motel room ain't gonna rent itself...
|Greek chorus breakin' it down for a good 20 minutes in the middle of a horror (anti)climax||YES|
|FUCK YOU, DAD!||YES|
|Haha, is anyone really dumb enough to fall for the old "OK, I'll give you a blowjob, but it's gotta be in the woods and you gotta give me a 60 second head-start" routine?||NO|
|Blacks, Asians, dumb jocks and slutty girls first under the chopping block?||DON'T DO DRUGS|
|Is the 3-D broken or did my right eye fall asleep?||OPTION #1|
MINORITY REPORT: I'm actually dangerously curious to see this now. Just look at that plot synopsis; it's like someone trying to rewrite It, but basing it only on vague half-remembrances of the original's plot and cross-confusion with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Presumably, this was Wes Craven's intention and he's some kind of artistic genius. I'm choosing to believe this. -Ian "ProfessorClumsy" Maddison
I was betrayed by the bernio bros, the cougars, and this guy from back page I hired to keep me from jumping out a window at the DNC.
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