Written by: John Doolan (screenplay), Michael Laimo (novel)
Directed by: Colin Theys
Starring: Magda Apanowicz, Jesse James, and Bill Moseley
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Don't go home.
Good news: for a brief moment, Dead Souls reminded me of Halloween, which is maybe the last thing you’d expect from a made-for-Chiller Network effort. As the film opened with a patriarch inexplicably laying waste to his family, I couldn’t help but think about that scene in John Carpenter’s immortal classic where the cemetery caretaker describes that killing spree over in Russellville. “Every town has something like this happen,” he says, something we know to be true both because they show up in headlines and in movies. Dead Souls is yet another one of these, albeit one with a supernatural slant and a mystery that eventually deflates.
Unfortunately, the comparisons to Halloween do not last long (I guess that's the bad news); instead, we’re dealing with something more like the recently-released Texas Chainsaw 3D (not to mention a handful of other movies): the film indeed opens with Benjamin Conroy (J.H. Torrance Downes) decked out in a priest’s get-up and slaughtering his wife and two of his children by affixing them to makeshift crosses out in the barn. During the carnage, one of the children (Kyle Donnery) manages to stow away baby Conroy and save him from a grisly fate. 17 years later, that baby has grown up to become Johnny Petrie (Jesse James), a high school senior with no knowledge of the tragedy that befell his family. Shortly after his 18th birthday, he receives a mysterious notice from an estate lawyer alerting him to his inheritance of the old Conroy abode, which has sat in a state of disrepair since that fateful, bloody night. Despite the protests of his loony, overprotective foster mother (Geraldine Hughes), he heads back to his old hometown to uncover the truth.
Dead Souls spends about an hour teasing out the mystery at hand here. Obviously, something made his dad snap, and, as it turns out, it’s not just a run-of-the-mill instance of banal evil; instead, there’s some mythological gumbo that mixes both Judeo-Christian and pagan beliefs, so you get bizarre rituals, possession, and even zombies (sort of). All of this stuff is packed into the back end, though, where the movie gets really gabby and relies on an avalanche of exposition that sinks it. It’s a really weird turn for a film that operates pretty efficiently and mostly succeeds as a slow burn until that point. Then again, at least the last 20 minute or so at least attempts to carve out its own weird mythology and story even if it gets caught up in the wash of its own exposition, so we’re definitely carrying a mixed bag here.
Let’s back up to the good stuff since the first hour has its moments. The opening massacre is pretty savage, unflinching stuff that doesn’t shy away from Conroy’s ruthlessness when he disposes of his family. I suppose the cold open also vaguely reminded me of Halloween, what with the unfathomable familial violence that goes unexplained. Dead Souls is much more explicit, though—the mother starts to mysteriously puke up blood, while Father Conroy keeps babbling that there’s “one more,” presumably a reference to his baby son (if so, however, you have to wonder why he decided to just off himself—“welp, I’m fulfilling some kind of religious ritual, but I can’t bother to look for a screaming baby to seal the deal, so I might as well hoist myself up on this cross.”). From there, the film never regains its intensity, as it begins to morph into a supernatural thriller. Upon returning to his hometown, Johnny is greeted by a trio of guys who immediately want him to head back home before he reawakens whatever evil his father conjured up years ago, so the film continues to frame itself as a mystery. It even becomes a haunted house movie when Johnny makes it to the family estate, where he runs into a pretty squatter (Magda Apanowicz), and the two spend most of the film’s middle act fending off whatever residual evil is hanging around.
While the middle section gets a little dry and soggy, it’s at least decently-realized: there are a couple of good jolts, and the film keeps propelling towards its big revelation. Eventually, Bill Moseley wanders in as the town’s former sheriff; long since retired, he still hasn’t been able to shake the images he saw at the Conroy crime scene, so he’s continued to work on the case and clumsily provides some answers. It’s not mind-blowing stuff, and it does rely on a lot of exposition, but it at least features an ample amount of craziness between the séances, psychic flashbacks, and undead bodies coming back to life (before promptly being lit on fire in one of the more impressive sequences). Even though Dead Souls winds up being quite a mess, it’s at least somewhat memorable and has the decency to remain relatively action-packed (save for a stretch during the middle) as it shifts from slashery prologue to haunted house movie before finally settling on possession/zombie tropes. I even found myself bummed about the fate of one of the characters.
The director here is Colin Theys, who seems to be the go-to guy for made-for-TV horror here lately (his resume already boasts Alien Opponent and Remains). Unlike his previous efforts, Dead Souls is small-scale and doesn’t stretch itself beyond its means. Most notably, it doesn’t have to lean too heavily on CGI outside of a couple of dodgy shots, which is something that sunk those other two films. That said, the low budget still reveals itself in the overall aesthetic—it’s a flat-looking movie through and through and betrays its television roots at every turn. Theys at least has a solid cast to work with; the familiar faces turn in reliably solid turns, while James and Apanowicz make for decent leads (especially the latter, who will also be appearing in Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno later this year). I don’t know if Chiller premieres inspire the same sort of guttural snark as SyFy Movies—from my limited experience, they seem to be a step above that, and Dead Souls doesn’t do much to change that perception.
Eight months after its Chiller premiere, the film is coming to DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory, a label that’s committed itself to more proven catalogue titles since its inception. Dead Souls won’t carry the same amount of fanfare as its usual stuff, but Scream has given it a decent release—the high definition transfer is sleek, while the disc presents both DTS-MA 5.1 and 2.0 tracks. A commentary with Theys, writer John Doolan, and producer Andrew Gernhard headlines the list of special features, which also includes some bloopers, a set tour with Theys, and some TV spots. This release also features the uncut version of the film and boasts seven additional minutes that didn’t air during its premiere back in October. If you happened to miss it back then, it’s not a bad movie to catch up to—fittingly, it seems like something you might watch if you happened upon it while flipping through the channels. If “not bad for a Chiller movie” counts as an endorsement, I guess this sort of counts as ringing one. Rent it!
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