My Soul to Take (2010)
It seems fair to assume that Wes Craven never quite over Freddy Krueger, specifically what happened to the Springwood Slasher once he relinquished control. On more than one occasion, the esteemed filmmaker noted his consternation with how his infamous boogeyman was softened for mass consumption, leaving him to chase the dragon of Elm Street at various points in his career. Whether this took the form of conjuring up another, similar madman or literally putting Freddy back into his bottle, you sense that Craven himself was haunted by his most famous creation. Even towards the end of his illustrious career, he looked to recapture that magic with My Soul To Take, yet another tale about a maniac reaching from beyond the grave to exact revenge on an entire generation of children.
Unlike Elm Street, however, this one befuddled just about everyone (including yours truly) when it finally bowed in theaters back in 2010. Coming off a tumultuous production history—that included the perplexing working title 25/8 and a long delay—the film landed with a thud, only to slowly grow in infamy during the last several years, hence the reason for this revisit. Sometimes, you just have to know if you missed something, even when your enduring memory about a movie is a scene where a kid delivers an over-the-top class presentation about the California condor, complete with his buddy dressed up as the bird and puking on his classmates.
When it’s put that way, My Soul to Take sounds like it should at least be an indelible experience, and this revisit didn’t exactly disavow me of that notion. Don’t get me wrong: I can’t argue this is some misunderstood effort destined to become an immortal cult classic with time, but I can at least admit that it’s just off-kilter enough to warrant a second consideration. In fact, the stuff that threw me off back when it was released is exactly what makes it stand out now: if nothing else, it’s something else to just gawk at how goddamn strange the character behavior is here.
It’s easy to write this off as the byproduct of a 60-year-old man writing dialogue for teens, but I’m not sure how that quite explains how none of these people resemble human beings. Bizarre, out-of-touch dialogue—like the school’s resident Jesus freak imploring a character to “turn up the prayer conditioning”—is one thing; speaking in a nigh-incomprehensible Mean Girls language—terms like “Fang Time” and “3s & 8s” are thrown around like we’re supposed to know what it means—is another. Ditto for a mid-movie smackdown between two characters whose relationship is suddenly revealed out of the blue for no reason whatsoever: it’s not like the film exactly turns on its head with the knowledge that protagonist Bug (Max Thieriot) is related to bully Fang (Emily Meade), but it’s treated as some huge shocker nonetheless.
Calling My Soul to Take “haywire” is putting it lightly—this movie is quietly, almost sociopathically unhinged in the way it just expects you to amble along with its insanity. You spend most of the movie trying to make heads or tails of the plot, which is essentially some demented game of whack-a-mole involving the soul of a serial killer being stowed away in one of the Riverton Seven, a group of kids that was born exactly when the psycho expired years earlier. It’s sort of a whodunit where the culprit is hiding in plain sight, only the clues and red herrings fall flat since the most “disturbed” characters (like Bug himself and another bully) are too obvious as suspects. Scream it isn’t, primarily because the nonsense tends to overwhelm the mystery, meaning you don’t really give a shit about who the killer is so much as you’re concerned with how any of this makes any sense.
Which, to be fair, is probably a good thing since My Soul to Take doesn’t distinguish itself in many other ways. Most of the stuff that underwhelmed in 2010 still does now: the Riverton Ripper feels like a disappointing, generic Rob Zombie cast-off , especially compared to Freddy’s indelible, ghoulish presence. His carnage is also tame (though, to be fair, Craven didn’t set out to make a splatter movie), while most of the climax unfolds inside a nondescript house. Worse, it’s crushed under the weight of leaden exposition that borders on a parody of the convoluted twists found in the likes of Saw. However, where those films generally featured genuinely surprising reveals with rapid-fire montages, My Soul to Take features the most mundane “revelations” ever as multiple characters untangle how the killer moved from one room to the next without anyone noticing. It is truly a mind-boggling resolution, one that teeters right on the borders of inanity, brilliance, and total absurdity. I still can’t decide if it’s the product of a concerted effort or if it’s evidence that Craven just lost his damn mind when writing this film.
And, to be fair, how often do we say that about older, more established nonsense from decades ago? How many movies have we enshrined in the canon solely because their utter weirdness outruns their other flaws? Even if My Soul to Take doesn’t completely do that, there’s a case to be made that it deserves to adjacent to that sort of conversation: as was often the case with Craven’s lesser efforts, there’s at least something to distinguish it. Maybe it doesn’t ascend to the lunacy of dog flashbacks or killer basketballs, but it does scatter in enough idiosyncrasies to earn a (slight) reappraisal. There’s also the big, Universal-sized elephant in the room: in the years since it’s released, it’s become a little clearer that the studio mandated various alterations, including a pointless 3D conversion. Over the course of a year, the film was apparently reshot rather heavily, leaving fans to speculate what Craven’s original vision was (and if it made any more sense, let’s be real).
In its released form, My Soul to Take feels like another bit of cinematic smuggling from Craven, who often found himself at the whims of studio notes throughout his career, none of whom could ever completely stifle the director’s sensibilities. This effort is no different: try as Universal might to make it more accessible for mainstream audiences, My Soul to Take still manages to be the weirdest goddamned tribute to the California condor that you could ever imagine.
Scream 4 (2011)
The disappointment surrounding My Soul to Take—which was Craven’s first film in five years, and the first he’d written in over a decade—was also mixed with anxiety. After all, the long-awaited Scream 4 was on the horizon—about 6 six months from release, as a matter of fact. What if this was a harbinger of doom for the sequel? What if Sidney Prescott and company suddenly began to babble about “3s and 8s” and state birds? Even worse, what if it ended up being as lackluster as Scream 3? Well, as it turns out, I personally didn’t have much to worry about (obviously, your mileage may very): Scream 4 was pretty much worth the wait. While it doesn’t reach the heights of the first two films, it’s a worthwhile companion, if only because it’s much more in line with them than part 3 ever was. If that film was self-parody, then this one is more of a blank parody: it’s a Scream greatest hits package, full of callbacks and déjà vu, and certainly about itself on some levels since it entered a genre landscape that the franchise had a hand in shaping.
But more than anything, Scream 4 is a course correction, one that narrows the focus back to Woodsboro and the fallout of its infamous rash of murders. No sprawling, wildly ill-fitting jaunts to Hollywood, no Scooby Doo-style revelations, no weird Jay and Silent Bob cameos—just Sidney Prescott and company returning fifteen years later to face the specter of their past when a new killer emerges to terrorize Woodsboro. Seven years later, it’s still refreshing in its simplicity, and even though the “new sequel” buzz has obviously worn off during that time, I’m still very much Team Scream 4.
Granted, it does take a little bit for it to really settle in following the deviously clever opening sequence. Something about the early Woodsboro proceedings feel like they’re trying a little too hard, meaning the humor comes off too glib, and the over-lit, TV-style photography doesn’t help matters. Slowly but surely, however, Scream 4 finds its groove though both its familiar characters and its newcomers. Like its predecessors, it features an impressive array of young talent capable of spitting the franchise’s signature, snappy dialogue, and they’re a genuinely affable bunch—if not a little bit too much of an obvious analogue to the previous generation.
Then again, I suppose that’s The Point of it all: it wouldn’t be Scream if it didn’t offer some sharp genre commentary, so it naturally tackles endless sequels and the rash of remakes that defined this particular era of horror. It even goes so far as to literalize the notion by having the new killer recreate the circumstances of the murders in the original Scream, opening the door for some pretty obvious insights. If I’m being honest, most of its observations don’t delve much deeper than the sort of smack talk that was bandied about the horror community at the time, be it comments sections or message boards (remember those?).
Noting the general approach and structure of remakes does open the door for some narrative playfulness: everyone expects the climax to occur at a party, in this case, an all-night Stab movie marathon held in a barn, an awesome setup that’s largely wasted in retrospect. See, in keeping with some remakes, this is a fake-out, as the actual climax unfolds in a house where Sidney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) and her friends are taking refuge…meaning Scream 4 actually does follow the original’s pattern anyway. We go through the entire spiel: not one, but two Ghostface reveals, their elaborate explanation, and a knock down, drag-out brawl, giving the entire thing an air of (intentional) déjà vu.
The song remains the same, even if the lyrics are somewhat altered: here, Jill herself is revealed as the mastermind, orchestrating this new murder spree as revenge against Sidney. Living in the shadow of her famous, thrice-victimized cousin has done a number on Jill, who craves a similar level of fame and has positioned herself as a victim. Roberts—who is clearly the standout of the newcomers—leans into the lunacy of it all, flinging herself all around the set as if she were part of some demented physical comedy routine. As a character, Jill turns on a dime, suddenly transforming from nu-Sidney to a cartoonish villain whose demise can’t arrive quickly enough. Craven and company often nailed this aspect, and Scream 4 is no less rousing with a hospital-set coda that finds Sidney dishing out Jill’s comeuppance with a line that doubles as the film’s mission statement: “you forgot the first rule of remakes: don’t fuck with the original,” effectively speaking for legions of horror fans jaded by Hollywood’s Xerox factory. It’s a terrific moment, even if it also speaks to the level of shallow genre commentary being offered this time around.
Which is not to say Scream 4 is completely devoid of insight. Certainly, Jill’s deranged quest for fame by any means necessary feels prescient as hell now that social media has twisted some people’s lives into a ceaseless pursuit of constant attention and validation. You could easily imagine Jill fitting right in with the Tragedy Girls since she’s driven by a similar vapid sociopathy. Say what you want about Billy and Stu, dude, at least they had an ethos. As such, Scream 4 takes on a “kids these days” vibe towards the end, an especially noteworthy turn within the context of Craven’s career, which often took the exact opposite approach: time and time again—in the likes of Elm Street, Shocker, People Under the Stairs, and, yes, even My Soul to Take—Craven’s films features youth doggedly struggling to outrun the sins of generations past.
Scream 4 inverts this by having a new generation actively seeking to be victims, thereby victimizing their older counterparts in the process. Given that this wound up being Craven’s last film, it almost feels like it unintentionally closed the loop on his career in some respects, and pairing it with My Soul to Take results in some kind of whiplash: where the latter ends with a boy becoming a revered town hero for defeating the Ripper, Scream 4 ends on an ironic shot of Jill’s dead body as news reports erroneously hail her as the brave sole survivor of the latest Woodsboro massacre. Two decidedly different sides of the same coin to be sure, and you can’t help but wonder where Craven might have gone from here had cancer not claimed his life a few years later.
At any rate, these last two films were appropriate final dispatches. Craven’s filmography is among the genre’s quirkiest and most unpredictable, as genuine classics often butt right up against…well, let’s just say not so genuine classics and leave it at that. Maybe the disparity between My Soul to Take and Scream 4 isn’t quite as pronounced as the gap between Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes 2 (which were released within months of each other), but it at least captures that unpredictability: Craven may have been preoccupied with recurring themes, but it rarely took the same cinematic form, an approach he insisted upon until the end of his career.
Stay tuned throughout the year as Slashbacks revisits more titles reviewed during OTH’s first 10 years. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: