Reviewed by James Owen
There must have been something on Wes Craven’s mind when he chose “My Soul to Take” for his first writer/director’s gig since 1994’s very funny and self-aware “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.” I mean, there’s always the need to make a buck—but if you’re Wes Craven, that’s why you make “Scream 4,” right? Still, this is the guy who made “A Nightmare on Elm Street” an allegory for the Cambodian Killing Fields and made “The People Under the Stairs” about Reaganomics. If Wes Craven is going to go through the trouble of putting of the auteur hat again, we should expect some social commentary between blood lettings.
Instead, I am not sure even what’s going on in “My Soul to Take.” We start out in 1994 with a serial killer dubbed “The Ripper” loose in the sleepy town of Riverton. Inexplicably, the local news knows the killer uses a knife emboldened with the word “vengeance.” Suburban dad Abel (uh oh, ham-handed symbolism alert) is working in the basement as his pregnant wife and child sleep upstairs. The knife appears. All of a sudden, the voices in his head tell him to kill his family. In true Craven style, the scene is unnerving, especially when Abel tries to talk himself out of it. Thankfully, Abel has a therapist on speed dial, so what we think is supernatural is actually part of some condition.
So, Abel’s problem is psychological, right? But, when all hell breaks loose, it seems awfully tough to kill Abel/Ripper, which again points us to the supernatural conclusion. As every law enforcement officer in Riverton tries to kill this lunatic, we also learn there’s an outbreak of child birthing going down at the hospital. Seven kids, which doesn’t sound like a baby boom, but (gasp!) this is the same number as The Ripper’s victims. I guess we can assume these newborns represent the souls taken by the serial killer. While that is going on, Abel “dies,” but Craven leaves lots of ambiguities. Dead, alive, or does it matter because he will live on? Plus, does the knife have anything to do with it or is that just a vessel for something deadlier?
We flash forward to the present. The anniversary is dubbed “Ripper Day” and all the kids born that night are turning sixteen. In a bit of endless exposition, we learn that the legend of The Ripper is that he will return to kill off all the kids who were born the day he died. Why? Because it’s the serial killer’s soul? Or because it’s the force that seemingly had control of the serial killer, as evidenced by the opener? Or did The Ripper really die? And why sixteen? This is where I think I sense Craven’s interest. Most of the Ripper Seven (or whatever they are) fit into the typical high-school stereotypes: the Jock, Geek, Mean Girl, Sensitive Type, the Non-Descript Asian are dispatched in the first fifteen minutes. The one thing they all have in common is a brooding seriousness, as if adolescence is a dreaded weight. Quite like “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” the children of this generation must pay for the sins of their parents’ generation.
Fair enough, but Craven doesn’t take that very far: Why do we care about these kids whose only purpose is to die vividly and unpleasantly in the first couple of reels? Their individuality is only matched in vapidity by your average adolescent on ABC Family. The notable exception, I suppose, is Bug (Max Thieriot). Bug has strange hallucinations and is seemingly able to channel the soul of the last kid killed. Has the soul of The Ripper entered into Bug? Does he have some sort of psychic, or genetic, connection? Seemingly not, as we see The Ripper killing his victims and he (or it) looks nothing like our Bug. Then, that pesky knife shows up.
This is almost irrelevant at this point because “My Soul to Take” doesn’t ever seem to take a position on WHAT The Ripper is. Of course, Bug also seems to have a thing for condors—a bird, we are reminded through repetitious exposition, the Native Americans believed carried the souls of the bodies it scavenged. Not only do we get this story over and over again, we even see Bug dressed as a condor for a science project. That there bird means death. Thanks, Wes, we got it the first six times.
Craven is still skilled at developing his villains into full character, not simply some moral arbiter as in the typical slasher film. Freddy Krueger, in his inception, was a silent bully designed to scar the mind as much as inflict physical pain. The killers from “The Hills Have Eyes” cleverly literalized the concept of the “nuclear” family. So, what does The Ripper represent? As a metaphor, he’s supposed to represent the doubt in an unrepentant soul. At least, that’s what the contrived plot twists of “My Soul to Take” point to. But there’s no resolution as to who the Ripper REALLY is or what he/it really represents. Craven’s uncertainty is maddening—it’s like he didn’t quite work the whole thing out in his mind before filming.
Plus, is it too much to just want to be scared by a mid-October movie? Other than the spooky, sepia-soaked cinematography and the opening sequence, I was given no one or nothing to worry about. I felt no emotional connection to this series of narrative episodes, so there was never anything at stake for me. If Craven had just lowered his goal to this very elegant if simple goal, I wouldn’t have cared about the unanswered question of “My Soul to Take”. As it is, my response to the question is: Who cares, Wes? Bring on Scream 4!