With its ripped-from-the-pages-of-“YM” cast (Eliza Dushku, Wes Bentley, Casey Affleck, and newcomer Melissa Sagemiller), at first glance “Soul Survivors” looks just like the lot of teen-targeted horror films that have infected screens the past five years. However, those going in expecting the usual slice-‘n-dice will instead get something quite different. But “different” doesn’t exactly mean “good,” and this surprisingly sedate supernatural story proves that point quite well.
The focal foursome are introduced with a backstory knotty enough to fill a season of “Dawson’s Creek.” Sean and Cassie (Affleck and Sagemiller, who perhaps not coincidentally has a Gwyneth-ish vibe about her) are in love, but Cassie’s ex Matt (Bentley), who also happens to be Sean’s best friend, still carries a torch. Meanwhile, Cassie’s freespirited best friend Annabel (Dushku), who is apparently cozy with Matt, remains unaware–or at least pretends to be–of his lingering romantic feelings for her buddy. Got that?
Actually, it doesn’t matter, for one fateful night where Sean discovers Cassie and Matt in a clinch becomes more dramatic when the quartet are involved in an auto wreck. The accident claims one of them, and while the other two survivors appear to have escaped unscathed both mentally and physically, Cassie is plagued by disturbing visions. What is real? What isn’t? Will you care?
Not likely. Between the accident scene and its conclusion, “Soul Survivors” is an exercise in spinning wheels, a muddle of images, ideas, and characters (such as Angela Featherstone’s androgynous lesbian role) that don’t go anywhere, let alone make any sense. Writer-director Steve Carpenter was obviously going for a dream-like atmosphere, but even when taking such a surreal bent, events should follow some sort of internal logic. They don’t here; one scene has Cassie having a major row with a friend, and the next scene has the friend cheering her on at a swim meet. Cassie’s visions are supposed to instill horror, but would-be shocks such as a rather violent nosebleed and a shot of blood going down a bath drain aren’t exactly the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Artisan’s much-publicized decision to recut the film from an R to a PG-13 may have indeed diluted Carpenter’s original vision, but when the “meaning” behind “Soul Survivors” becomes clear, issues of explicitness become moot. That Carpenter didn’t have the heart to come up with one halfway creepy scene, even in PG-13 form, speaks of his true intent, which reveals itself to be far more gooey and touchy-feely than one would have expected–and, hence, a lot less fun.