Flashes—and sometimes literal blood spurts—of artistry are enough to make one sit up and take notice of, if not actually save, "My Soul to Take." Slasher film, teenybopper soap opera, supernatural thriller, and a "Scooby Doo"-style mystery combine in uneasy, overwrought ways that signal filmmaker miscalculations and post-production tinkering (including a worthless 3-D conversion for theatrical distribution that amounts to watching a 2-D movie with sunglasses on). For fans of writer-director Wes Craven (2005's "Red Eye"), the pressing question many are sure to ask is, "What happened to him?" Article continues below
Sixteen years ago, seven babies were born in the small New England town of Riverton at the exact same moment an area serial killer died. Legend has it that the so-called Riverton Ripper lives on, shards of his personality transferred into each of them. With their birthday upon them, the offbeat Bug (Max Thieriot), bullied Alex (John Magaro), insolent jock Brandon (Nick Lashaway), religious Penelope (Zena Grey), popular Brittany (Paulina Olszynski), black Jerome (Denzel Whitaker), and Asian Jay (Jeremy Chu) sense that something wicked this way comes. They'd be right. By the end of the day, secrets about Bug's past will be revealed and most of the seven will be brutally slaughtered, either by one of their own or an infamous maniac who never perished after all.
"My Soul to Take" builds up plenty of good will in the first half only to destroy it all in the second. That's not to say that the opening fifty-five minutes are perfect—they're certainly not—but that they held a promise the latter act did not fulfill. Strangely alluring elements stand out, like the memorial of an ambulance carcass that sits right where the Ripper caused it to crash those many years before, or Bug's fascination with the California Condor and his creepy class report on the bird. Handsome cinematography by Petra Korner (2009's "The Informers") builds a foreboding atmosphere while effectively portraying the fictional town at the onset. Bursts of sobering violence are shot in an artistic, almost classical light, a positively weird and brilliant shot of crimson falling onto the feet of a victim being simultaneously stabbed and lifted off the ground downright inspired, like something Dario Argento might have pulled in 1977's "Suspiria."
Clunky dialogue, inexplicably oddball happenings, and far too many lame attempts at jump moments (usually followed by a character saying, "I didn't mean to scare you") are all notable offenders, but as a coming-of-age-film-cum-slasher-flick, it wasn't so bad. Hopes for a solid payoff crash and burn the second Bug arrives home late and his edgy mother (Jessica Hecht) pops up with a birthday cake. From here on, the film suddenly takes a sharp turn away from murder set-pieces and becomes a talky, over-the-top, intermittently laughable sudser. Director Wes Craven botches the countless exciting possibilities to further open up his plot, choosing for no apparent reason to shoot the remainder of the exposition-heavy picture in a single house interior like some kind of chamber piece.
For the most part, the actors play their roles as if they were on "All My Children" or "General Hospital." These aren't feature-level performances. Max Thieriot (2010's "Chloe"), a fine young actor, is likable, but seems awfully confused about where to take Bug, a weird teen who shows signs of multiple personality disorder. John Magaro (2009's "The Box") brings an intensity to Alex, but is strayed along by the requirements of the plot. The camera eats up newcomers Emily Meade, as Bug's angry 19-year-old adopted sister Fang, and Paulina Olszynski, as the peer-pressured Brittany, but the former tends to scream most of her lines and the latter isn't used as much as she should have been. Nick Lashaway (2010's "The Last Song") plays Brandon like a pure stereotype of a self-absorbed sexual predator in training. As the spiritually obsessed Penelope, Zena Grey (2006's "The Shaggy Dog") is let down by a script that gives her terrible lines to utter and even worse motivations (in one scene, she enters an ominous, darkened locker room for no reason and wanders around asking, "Who's there?"). Finally, as minorities, Jeremy Chu (2006's "Strangers with Candy") is on hand to be the first of the seven kids killed and Denzel Whitaker (2008's "The Great Debaters") is used only as a potential patsy for the villain to frame.
"My Soul to Take" is original but ridiculous, going in certain fresh directions even as it is happy to rip off 1996's "Scream" in key moments. Had it strictly settled on being a high school slasher movie, it might have had a shot; it is in these moments that director Wes Craven seems most comfortable. By aiming higher and failing so spectacularly, he has created a disappointingly scattered effort that isn't sure what it wants to say and how it wants to say it. Sad but true, this is one film that will be remembered as no more than a footnote in the grand scheme of Craven's career.