Judge Bill Gibron prefers his souls on the undead side.
Our review of Dead Souls, published June 27th, 2013, is also available.
Chiller tries the Syfy route…without the mandatory cheese.
The sudden growth in genre appreciation is a little daunting. Way back when, we horror fans had to scour the drive-in listings for the latest releases from Craven, Carpenter, and Romero, there were no 24 hour channels featuring nothing but fear. We had to pray for a decent Late Late Show screening, or worse, read about the latest masterpiece of the macabre from magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland or Fangoria. Then, somewhere along the line, creeps got mixed up with science fiction, and you had the arrival of the Sci-Fi Channel (now oddly labeled "Syfy"). Originally started to give shows like Lost in Space, Space: 1999, and other classic cults a place to roost, it's now become a surreal geek amalgamation, featuring everything from reality competitions, WWE wrestling (???), and made-for-TV schlockfests like MegaCroc vs. Killer Amoeba. Where once it championed the Universal catalog, now it's some marketing expert's idea of what a fright fan likes.
And with a little success has come a lot of imitation. Within the last couple of years, Fear Channel has tried to take over the mantle for pure, balls to the wall dread (within the limits of basic cable, mind you) while upstart Chiller has seen fit to address the niches Syfy and Fear can't fill. In that regard, Chiller has opted to go into the made-for-TV movie biz as well, though you won't see many sloppy CG snake-rabbit mutants among its motion picture populace. Dead Souls is the channel's latest production, adapted from an award winning novel by Michael Laimo (that last name should be a dead giveaway as to where this review is heading) and featuring at least one famous fright face: Bill Moseley, otherwise known as Chop-Top from Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, or perhaps to this generation, as Otis from Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses/ and The Devil's Rejects. Unfortunately, neither source or co-star can save this movie from its stale, uninvolving shivers.
When Johnny Petrie (Jesse James, The Amityville Horror) turns 18, he gets quite the shocking birthday present. He finds out that he is adopted, that his entire family was killed (initially, he is told it was in an accident, but we already know it was by his insane biological father), and that he has now inherited a spooky old farmhouse. Hoping to wrap up some loose ends and finds a few answers, he returns to the rural Maine setting of his birth and is immediately give the bum's rush. The locals hate him, the estate lawyer wants to get the place sold ASAP, and Johnny runs into a squatter named Emma (Magda Apanowicz, Kyle XY) who believes that something still "lives" in the old place. Before long, our hero learns his true lineage, what happened to the rest of his kin, and why there is still an evil presence lurking in the background, waiting to complete what Johnny's dad started all those years ago. Boo.
After an opening that really pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable TV splatter, Dead Souls drops off like the Cayman Trough. It goes from relatively gory to extremely boring so quickly you'd think that supernatural anti-fun forces were at play. While there are some who enjoy the whole PG-13 slow burn approach to terror, this movie milks inertia for all its limited returns. Most of the movie is literally Johnny and Emma wandering around, hearing things go "bump" and seeing shapes just off in their peripheral vision. When the big reveal comes, it's incredibly anticlimactic, since we've already more or less seen shocker up front. Fans of Moseley will also be unhappy. He plays a former sheriff and shows up toward the middle of the last act. He's a great actor, but he's given little to do here. Overall, Dead Souls illustrates why a channel like Chiller struggles. Instead of staying true to the genre, it wants to balance menace within a commercial mainstream, and that rarely works.
As for the Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory subdivision Scream! Factory, the tech specs are pretty good. There is an unrated version of the film that provides seven more minutes of blood than could be shown on TV. It doesn't really help. The 1.85:1 1080p image is good-moody and mindful of the often dark sequences and settings. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix also offers up a nice level of ambient dread. Noises in the background and directional shocks give the speakers a decent workout. As for added content, we get a decent tour of the set which shows off the spooky atmosphere of the "haunted" farmhouse. There's also some bloopers and the TV spots which aired on Chiller, plus a self-congratulatory commentary track which lets the participants praise each other and the final results. You've heard a hundred full length feature discussions like this before.
Dead Souls is not outright awful, it's just indicative of a genre struggling to find its way among channels celebrating food, travel, DIY, and disgustingly rich divas. Until someone comes along and allows scares to be savored in full unrated wonder, we will be stuck with something like this: well meaning, but ultimately mediocre.
Guilty. A grind once you get past the disturbing opening.
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