With its release held up for nearly two years, rumors circulating about last-minute cuts to earn a PG-13 rating rather than an R, and a studio embargo on press screenings, Steve Carpenter’s psycho-thriller arrives with a lot of baggage. A pity the luggage doesn’t include an intelligent script, a cast that does more than blankly repeat the same tired bits of business over and over again, or direction that can clarify what’s supposed to be going on. (Things get so bad that at one point there seems to be a flashback to a piece of footage that’s no longer present.) Perhaps “Soul Survivors” made some small sense in its earlier versions, but what’s been tossed into theatres is an incoherent jumble of horror movie cliches, capped by a post-“Sixth Sense” surprise twist that falls completely flat. It’s the sort of thing that might have passed muster, at twenty-some minutes, as one of the lesser episodes of the old “Twilight Zone” series (though Rod Serling would at least have insured that it was less chaotic and would surely have blushed at the silly ending). At ninety minutes in a multiplex, however, it’s an embarrassing snoozer.
The plot centers on four kids: Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller), her boyfriend Sean (Casey Affleck), her ex Matt (Wes Bentley) and his current squeeze, Cassie’s best friend Annabel (Eliza Dushku). The quartet drive Cassie and Annabel to their college out east, but once there they unwisely go to a goth party at an abandoned church, where some masked weirdos start harassing our heroine. To make matters worse, Sean sees Cassie kissing Matt and goes into a funk. His mood is short- lived, however–along with the rest of him–because on the drive back to town there’s a terrible crash in which Sean is killed. A few weeks on, we find Cassie still in a fog of guilt; Matt, acting more and more strangely, tends her when she suffers a relapse, and Annabel periodically smolders at their reunion while simultaneously entering into what appears to be a lesbian relationship with a goth psychic called Raver (Angela Featherstone). But that’s not all: Sean appears occasionally to Cassie, and she’s also pursued by masked goth thugs from the church. An oddly ethereal but kindly priest, Father Jude (Luke Wilson) also shows up to offer consolation and uplifting advice.
“Soul Survivors” at first appears to be a fairly straightforward ghost story, but it quickly degenerates in a welter of complications and silly ambiguities. Nor does Sagemiller make an especially appealing protagonist. She’s good-looking, but her acting is strictly amateur-night, and when she runs about screaming, she proves as funny as Linda Blair did in the 1981 bomb “Hell Night” (which practically ended her post-“Exorcist” career). Bentley, Affleck and Wilson are so deadpan that they might as well be sleepwalking through the action, while Dushku balances things out by mugging hysterically. Featherstone tries grimly to appear threatening and fails.
Meanwhile Carpenter stages scene after scene of apparitions, attempted muggings, adolescent nightmares, and chases down conveniently vacant streets, but never bothers to connect the dots into a narrative of even the most basic intelligibility. (The outcome isn’t quite as much of a mess as Artisan’s “Blair Witch” sequel was, but it comes darn close.) It certainly doesn’t help that the whole thing’s photographed by Fred Murphy in bland earth tones that make everything murky and indistinct; but you do have to admit that as such the result accurately mirrors the story’s lack of clarity. The denouement tries to explains away the muddle of the preceding eighty-five minutes, but the mechanism is about as successful as the one that the makers of “Dallas” used when they brought Bobby Ewing back from the dead on the old TV series.
Despite the studio’s herculean efforts over many months to make “Soul Survivors” presentable, the picture–despite the apparent hopefulness of its title–turns out to be D.O.A.