I’m just going to go ahead and say it: My Soul to Take got a bad rap. I’m not gonna say “gets,” because I don’t think anybody even talks about it enough to say anything bad about it anymore, minus a passing mention in that episode of Castle where Wes Craven guest starred. Instead it came out, got panned, and narrowly avoided being Craven’s swan song only by virtue of Scream 4 coming along the following year. It’s got a damning 9% at Rotten Tomatoes, where the critical consensus claims that the film is, “Dull, joyless, and formulaic,” and “suggests writer/director Wes Craven ended his five-year filmmaking hiatus too soon.”
Here’s the thing, though: My Soul to Take is actually a lot better than that. I think the problem is that it’s a creature out of place and out of time. Almost a decade-and-a-half earlier, Craven and writer Kevin Williamson–who would reteam directly on Scream 4–had created a new boom in the teen slasher genre with the original Scream. This led to a variety of attempts to capitalize on the fad, including stuff like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend to name just a few. My Soul to Take is a late entry into that particular pantheon, hearkening back to the old early-80s slashers that were as much about whodunits as they were about body counts. It is probably that very lateness to the party that plays a big part in why My Soul to Take is so widely discounted, though you’d think the fact that it’s helmed by the guy who kickstarted the renaissance would buy it at least a little more consideration.
As such, My Soul to Take isn’t actually great at being a horror film. What it is good at is being a supernaturally-tinged whodunit, even if its supernatural angle is more than a little under cooked, and its ultimate reveal has… some problems. It’s a movie that would benefit enormously from a bigger investment in setting–the little town has character, but we don’t spend enough time with it to really get the most out of it–and more time developing its various characters and sub-plots. Because where My Soul to Take leaves most of its equally half-baked competition in the dust is in its dramatis personae.
See, on the surface, the Riverton Seven–our cast of characters, and also, of course, of suspects–are the stock cut-outs that populate pretty much all of these movies, generic enough that they could practically have come from a send-up like Cabin in the Woods. But My Soul to Take plays them, at least at the beginning, like characters from a high school comedy, instead of a “dead teenagers” flick, which helps to carry the rest of the movie through its most formulaic moments.
It doesn’t hurt that most of the actors are good, with Max Thieriot (who we would later see as Norman Bates’ dissolute half-brother in Bates Motel) anchoring the picture as the twitchy Bug, required to be able to switch personalities as dictated by the film’s (admittedly) rather convoluted central conceit. John Magaro (who I recently saw as one of the start-up guys in The Big Short) plays his predictably wise-cracking best friend from an abusive home, but the two lend their characters enough verisimilitude and have enough chemistry together that we can actually believe that they’re best friends, separating this from, y’know, 80% of similar fare.
Most of the other actors acquit themselves well enough, with poor Frank Grillo being given almost nothing to do as the town cop who knows all the secrets, Danai Gurira (Michonne on The Walking Dead) as an EMT with spiritual insights (of course) whose part seems like it got cut down from some longer, better movie, and Emily Meade bringing a nice physicality to a late-game scene with Fang, the villain from a high school comedy given something different to work with here.
Of course, My Soul to Take is a hell of a long ways from perfect, and there’s plenty of dumb stuff in there. (The killer’s knife saying “Vengeance” on it for no reason except to make sure that we can easily identify it throughout.) It’s nowhere near the best of Craven’s work but it also isn’t, as several critics have claimed, the worst thing he ever did. (I think they’re forgetting Cursed and Swamp Thing and Vampire in Brooklyn and my new favorite “so bad it’s good” go-to Deadly Friend.)
Frankly, it’s probably better than the first couple of Scream sequels–and certainly better than The Ward, John Carpenter’s return to the genre after an even longer hiatus, which likely deserves all those adjectives from the critical consensus above–and it makes a nice companion piece to the also-somewhat-better-than-workmanlike Red Eye from five years before. In the end, if there had never been a Scream 4 and this had been the last film Wes Craven left behind, he wouldn’t exactly have gone out with a bang, but he wouldn’t have had anything (new) to be ashamed of, either.