For a made-for-television movie which originally aired on the Chiller cable network last year, 'Dead Souls' isn't all that bad. In fact, there are several moments worthy of some mild admiration — unexplained shadows suddenly moving in the background are well executed with a good deal of creepiness. The plot, which originated in a novel by Michael Laimo, comes with a fairly original twist to a very familiar subgenre: the haunted house. As the story progresses, the things that go bump in the night include occult rituals, possessions, teenage hormones, and just for the heck of it, a touch of zombie silliness. It's all in the name of good scary fun, but ultimately, the movie doesn't generate enough of a frightful atmosphere to be all that memorable.
From director Colin Theys, a relatively young filmmaker with a growing resume of low-budget, straight-to-video horror fare, the movie displays some creative touches when establishing a few creepy scenarios. A naïve city boy Johnny Petrie (Jesse James), who just learned on his 18th birthday that he inherited a farmhouse with a disturbing past in Maine, spends the night in his biological family's dilapidated home. Teenage squatter Emma (Magda Apanowicz), who thankfully is easy on the eyes, is apparently allowed to crash in the house with Johnny while he mulls over the possibility of selling the property. Thus far, no one takes a few minutes to explain to the new owner the alarming history associated with the place, which is really unfair since the kid is starting to consider keeping it.
Nevertheless, the story continues with the few positives that make this cheap thrill watchable. As the two kids slowly develop an attraction — which is really the result of their raging hormones and not so much a natural magnetism of kindred souls that grows from genuinely getting to know each other — they discover they're not alone in the house. Blurry people stand by windows, bluish pale faces peek out of closets, sometimes even out of thin air next to a character's face, and inanimate objects appear and disappear thanks to some helpful editing. The best moments are the creative use of deep space, as shadows in the corners of other rooms move from side of the frame to the other. I particularly enjoyed Emma's shoulder message the instant she realizes Johnny is outside on the swing and not in the room with her.
It's scenes like these in which Theys succeeds and very patiently builds upon those moments as the situation grows worse and worse. He displays some talent behind the camera and generates suspense, despite much of the work being pretty much rip-offs of nearly every other horror movie having to do with the supernatural and ghostly apparitions. His two young stars, who are actually not much younger than the director, don't exactly deliver award-winning performance — frankly, they're pretty generic and bland — but Theys gets some decent quality out of them. On the other hand, Bill Moseley as retired Sheriff Depford and Geraldine Hughes as Johnny's adopted mother bring some much needed weight to the cast, and the pair standout as both creepy and a bit too caring.
Sadly, things start unraveling at the seams as we learn more about the house, the family, and the mystery of why the ghostly inhabitants remain. Everything is going fine with a passable storyline that's engaging enough, but the plot suddenly takes a turn onto Cockamamie Road and stops at Preposterous Junction. It's all silly nonsense about resurrecting the dead, being trapped in limbo, the correct number of nails used on a crucifixion, and some other absurdity that should have religious fundamentalists in an uproar. Unfortunately, to disclose anymore would be to give away too much about what the filmmaker's seem think makes for a good twist. In the end, 'Dead Souls' has some spooky spirit to it, but suddenly drops dead towards the end and drives a nail into its own proverbial heart.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Shout! Factory brings 'Dead Souls' to Blu-ray under the distributor's Scream Factory line. The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside a standard blue keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. At startup, viewers are taken straight to a menu screen with full-motion clips and music.
Shot on the Arri Alexa digital camera system, 'Dead Souls' moves into the Blu-ray home with a generally satisfying though not particularly noteworthy 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the picture is frankly sterile and gives off that unattractive, digital soap-opera feel. Contrast is mostly bland and pretty drab, but it's stable with cleanly-rendered whites throughout. Brightness levels alternate often between good, strong blacks and murky, dreary shadows, which can at times ruin delineation within the darker portions of the image. The color palette is also unimpressive and largely dull, but to be fair, this could also be attributed to the cinematography rather than the quality of the transfer. Fine object and textural details are probably the best aspect of this high-def presentation, but they, too, are rather inconsistent with several scenes looking softer than other.
The made-for-television horror movie arrives with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that show various positives along with a few negatives. Viewers have the option of watching in surround sound or stereo, but in either case, the design doesn't take full advantage of the possibilities and ultimately fails at adding to the scares. In all fairness, the lossless mix is clean with a decently welcoming soundstage, best demonstrated by an original score that fills all three channels and very lightly bleeds into rears. Dialogue is clear and well-prioritized while the mid-range exhibits good clarity detail in the orchestration and the few action sequences. Low bass, unfortunately, is lackluster with hardly any extension at all. One or two discrete effects try to expand the soundfield, but ultimately, it's not enough for generating a creepy atmosphere, let alone leave much of an impression.
From the Chiller cable network, 'Dead Souls' is a haunted house spook-fest that conjures up a few creepy moments but fails to really scare the bejesus out of anyone. It's a nice effort from straight-to-video director Colin Theys, but the story's ending ultimately drives the final nail through the heart of the whole production. The Blu-ray arrives with a good if somewhat lacking audio and video presentation. A couple of amusing supplements make the overall package a decent rental for anyone in the mood.