My Soul to Take
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The quiet Connecticut hamlet of Riverton is haunted by a horrific history. Sixteen years ago, a man named Abel Plenkov went on a murderous rampage, ending with the killing of his own pregnant wife. No one suspected that the mild-mannered family man could be the villain—including Plenkov himself, it turns out, because he suffered from schizophrenia and his mind was home to seven different personalities. After being shot by police, Plenkov's ambulance trip to the hospital ended when he broke free and caused a horrific accident.
His body was never found.
That same night, seven children were born prematurely—a group that became known as the Riverton Seven. As they grew up with their birthday linked to Plenkov's story, so grew a superstitious practice in which the children summoned his spirit from the river each year to symbolically kill it (by stabbing him in effigy). Their hope? That his ghost would not return to possess one of them and begin the whole cycle of evil once more.
And so the Riverton Seven—an innocent named Bug; his best friend, Alex; class cutie Brittany; jock/thug Brandon; easygoing Jay; pious Penelope; and a blind boy named Jerome—gather at the wreckage of the old ambulance to banish Plenkov's spirit on their 16th birthday. But the police interrupt the proceedings before this year's chosen exorcist, Bug, can bury the symbolic knife.
No worries, everyone says. It's just a superstition.
But then Jay disappears.
And Bug starts having visions of dead classmates.
And Penelope begins getting messages from God about the evil about to be unleashed.
And one by one the members of the Riverton 7 start turning up with their throats slashed.
Penelope's faith leads her to pray for several classmates and to help them evade the doom she believes is coming. (We'll talk more about Penelope in "Spiritual Content.") Bug is a good-hearted kid who does his best to act heroically. And his older sister, Leah, eventually risks her life to protect him.
My Soul to Take weaves together spiritual ideas from the Christian, Haitian voodoo and Native American traditions. Penelope's Christian faith is at times taken seriously, at other times played for satirical effect. In the former category, we hear her praying (in Jesus name) for the protection of missionary friends. When she's scared, she recites Psalm 23. Her faith motivates her to befriend a pregnant girl, who eventually seems to embrace a faith in God, too. Penelope's strong sense of sin and judgment prompts her to tell Brandon that he's probably going to hell for his sexual sins. When Bug says, "We're doomed," she replies, "We're all doomed, Bug. It's the human condition. It's the next life we should look forward to."
At times, though, the film mocks her as she says such things as, "If things get too hot, just turn on the prayer conditioning." After she's murdered, Bug sees a vision of Penelope in which she guides him toward an important piece of information.
Bug's mother, May, is a churchgoing woman. His older sister, Leah, however, has grown jaded because of what she's seen in life. Countering Paul's wisdom in Romans 8:28, she asserts that everything does not work out for the good, and she implies that Christianity is a deceptive lie.
Meanwhile, an EMT named Jeanne-Baptiste tells a police officer, "In Haiti they don't say people are born with multiple personalities. They say they are born with multiple souls." That statement fuels the film's title and the idea that one of Plenkov's evil souls might still be waiting for its opportunity to possess a new victim.
The film's production notes elaborate on this further, with comments from writer/director Wes Craven. "If [a] person should happen to die and is host to an evil personality, that's not the end of it; rather, when a person dies, their soul—or in this case, souls—can live on," he says. "If the bad guy dies, it's not necessarily over, as his soul can reappear in one of the Riverton Seven, and they could be the next iteration of the brutal killer."
There's also a significant amount of time given to the subject of California condors, and the spiritual powers that Native Americans believed these birds possessed. They're described as "keepers of souls" who somehow ate death and made way for new life. As the film concludes, Bug says of himself, "I am the condor. The keeper of souls. I eat death for breakfast."
Bug has other visions of his dead friends, and he implies at one point that he has somehow absorbed their souls into himself. Eventually we learn that the new killer has been possessed by Plenkov's spirit.
Several characters lust after Brittany, but none more than Brandon. When he crudely propositions her for oral sex, she tells him she hopes a dog does something painful to his groin. Later, she calls him a "crotch dog."
Brandon and Brittany eventually end up together on a deserted road, where he reminds her of his request, then vulgarly adds more demands. After Penelope suggests that Brandon could be imprisoned for impregnating another girl at school, she alludes to what other inmates in prison might do to him sexually. Then she tops that threat by saying that him getting raped in prison would be nothing compared to what the demons in hell will do if he ends up there.
In a moment of honesty, Brandon admits to Brittany, "I disgust myself sometimes."
The film wastes no time plunging us into vivid violence. We watch the original killer "find" his wife's dead, bloody body in their bed. A subsequent shootout with police subdues him—until he manages to snatch a gun and shoot two more people. En route to the hospital, he slits a woman's throat and sparks a fiery accident.
A decade and a half later, the bloodletting continues. Folks get beaten and stabbed. The killer slashes a girl's throat, and blood flows into a swimming pool. Later, we see that girl propped up against the old ambulance wreck, with a gaping wound across her neck. Another murder is witnessed from the perspective of the girl being killed: The camera looks down as blood flows freely to her dangling feet and pools on the ground.
A wild melee between Bug and the murderer involves pistol shots, slashing knives and flying fists and feet. Alex's father pummels him, which leaves a large welt on his chest. Brandon throttles both Alex and Bug on the orders of a mean girl named Fang, who pretty much runs the social order at school. Several people fall and hit their heads. And a couple of characters are slapped or hit in the face. Alex's cruel stepfather beats him, supposedly to teach him not to trust anyone. (Alex confesses to Bug that a fight they had resulted in the older man falling and breaking his neck.).
Crude or Profane Language
Forty-plus f-words and about 15 s-words. God's name is taken in vain three times, including one pairing with "d‑‑n." We hear vulgar and obscene references to the female anatomy (including one use of the c-word). Characters also say "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑n," "b‑‑ch" and "a‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Fang smokes a joint in one of her high school's restrooms. Alex's father is shown with a beer.
Other Negative Elements
Fang is fierce and hardened. Not only does she determine who'll receive a daily beatdown from her chief thug, Brandon, she extorts her classmates. At a bathroom meeting between Fang and her lackeys, we hear that they've collected $2,000 from peers.
May withholds important information about Bug's identity and his past. Alex says the right response to fear is to pretend you don't have any. He tells Bug, "No man feels like a man," and that the path to true masculinity is "faking it."
Bug and Alex perform a class skit which involves Alex dressing up as a condor and terrorizing students. When Brandon tries to stop him, Bug narrates the condor's natural defenses (which they're prepared to simulate): vomiting and defecating on enemies.
A scheme to learn what Fang is plotting has Bug sneaking into the girl's restroom at school and leaving his cell phone there to eavesdrop.
Sitting through the latest effort from the man who played key roles in launching the Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream franchises, I realized that Wes Craven's brand of horror can be boiled down to two C's: concept and camp.
Craven loves to take an idea and play it out as far as it will go. In this case, it's the idea of a bad soul coming back to possess a new victim. Even while milking such a concept for all it's worth, though, Craven never takes himself too seriously. He has, after all, made a career out of spoofing the rules of horror movies. Accordingly, My Soul to Take has a campy, '80s kind of feel to it.
Given those observations, I hesitate to suggest that Craven's latest body-strewn, f-bomb-laden effort has anything approximating meaning.
And yet …
Amid all the throat slashing, there's a lot of spiritual content—and a variety of contrasting spiritual ideas at that. One character espouses an orthodox understanding of Christianity, for example. But she quickly ends up dead, her prayers for deliverance unanswered.
Another character who doubts whether God's plan is a good one, who believes it's all a lie, is still breathing at the end. Then we've got Bug, who's enamored by the idea of soul-eating condors. And there's all that voodoo stuff, too.
I'll let Craven, a graduate of Wheaton College, connect all those dots: "Death can be a shedding of an old persona and result in rebirth. At the film's end, all Bug's illusions are stripped away and he has to face everything that's happened to the people of Riverton. Out of all these horrible things, he takes the best of what has been shattered and puts it in resolve. This is what I think we all do; we have to lose our illusions. We find out that many things are lies, and we take the best of what we can salvage."
Salvage? I don't even want to recycle this blood-drenched, spiritually convoluted tale of murderous mayhem.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Max Thierot as Adam 'Bug' Hellerman; John Magaro as Alex; Nick Lashaway as Brandon O'Neil; Paulina Olszynski as Brittany Cunningham; Zena Grey as Penelope Bryte; Denzel Whitaker as Jerome King; Jeremy Chu as Jay Chan; Emily Meade as Fang/Leah; Raúl Esparza as Abel Plenkov/The Ripper; Jessica Hecht as May Hellerman
October 8, 2010
February 8, 2011