Few horror directors would have the nerve to experiment with the conventions of a teen slasher film, to go beyond the reliable hallmarks of knife-wielding maniacs, bloody corpses, and paper-thin revenge plots. Perhaps that’s exactly why Wes Craven wanted to write and direct My Soul to Take, which is unlike any slasher I’ve ever seen. In terms of atmosphere, it exists in a gray zone between dreariness and absurdity. In terms of structure, it’s a bizarre, meandering dreamscape of grisly murders, horrific visions, and dread secrets. In terms of theme, it could be anything from teenage social circles to heredity to reincarnation to insanity to the California condor, an eater of the dead revered for its ability to clear away the old and usher in the new. I can’t pretend that I understood this movie, but at the very least, I never once found it boring.
Set in the fictional town of Riverton, Massachusetts, My Soul to Take is the story of seven teenagers, who were all born the night a serial killer known as the Riverton Ripper supposedly died. It’s now sixteen years later, and members of the community are once again disappearing, just as local legend foretold. Did the Ripper survive his car accident, or does his soul now reside within one of the seven kids? In either case, who has the power to stop him? Is there any way that he can be stopped?
Craven develops his characters to the point of oddness, and yet there’s something irresistibly fascinating about them. The main character, Adam Hellerman, a.k.a. Bug (Max Thieroit), freely shifts back and forth between timidity and instability, apparently as the result of his lifelong battle with mental disorders and migraine headaches. At times, he’s plagued by dark premonitions and/or revelations. At other times, he can alter his voice and repeat verbatim brief passages of dialogue spoken by his peers, almost as if they were temporarily in possession of his body. Or perhaps he’s temporarily in possession of them – the details are more than a little sketchy. I distinctly remember an early scene in which Bug stands in front of his best friend and mimics every single movement he makes, like a reflection in a mirror.
His best friend, named Alex (John Magaro), has strange ideas about acting like a man, most likely as a result of being raised by an abusive stepfather. Whenever he gets hit, he’ll calmly say, “Thank you. That felt good.” He’ll then beef up his statements with a swear word or two. He and Bug collaborate on a class presentation on the California condor; as Bug snaps into a trance and rambles in a voice not quite like his own, Alex parades around in an elaborate bird costume equipped with two fluid-filled bottles, one green like vomit, the other brown like feces. This incurs the wrath of the school bully, Brandon (Nick Lashaway), known for chauvinism and other indiscretions. He wants to have sex with Brittany (Paulina Olszynski), who’s involved with Bug’s sister, nicknamed Fang (Emily Meade), who knows something about Bug’s past and hates him for his innocence and for ruining her life. He isn’t sure how innocent he actually is.
Is this making any sense at all? It seems that the more I try to describe Craven’s twisted logic, the less I understand. What message is he trying to send? That new generations are deeply affected by old generations? That not having a father in your life prevents you from understanding what it is to be a man? My Soul to Take is a cerebral horror film, the kind that continuously hints at meaning but never gets around to providing us with any. Or maybe it’s provided in such a way that an audience wouldn’t recognize it. In spite of this, I found the experience oddly absorbing. It may in part have to do with Craven’s dialogue, a strange mesh of potty-mouthed teenage talk and deep metaphor, especially in relation to the condor. It may also have to do with the blurring of reality and fantasy; let’s just say that Bug’s mental state leaves the reliability of the plot in question.
I liken the experience of watching this film to watching Richard Kelly’s The Box, a nonsensical and preposterous but somehow engaging psychological thriller that integrated science fiction with a number of impenetrable themes. My Soul to Take toys with the audience and toys with it well, but there will always be a part of me that wished I could have figured out was Craven was trying to say. I suspect the vast majority of horror fans will not respond to this movie, given the confusing nature of the plot, the strangeness of the characters, and its unconventional approach to the genre. That’s certainly understandable. But for those who have long since grown tired of the average teen slasher film – and I definitely count myself as one of them – this movie may be a welcome change of pace, a chance to see what happens when the genre is turned on its head.