An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · September 10, 2001, 7:00 PM EDT
Soul Survivors

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on September 10, 2001, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Remember the good old days—oh, about two years ago or so—when Artisan seemed like it was going to be a new force in genre cinema? As opposed to the teen-centric stuff coming out of Dimension, Artisan was backing interesting fare like The Blair Witch Project, Stir of Echoes and The Ninth Gate. But what a difference one high-profile flop (Blair Witch 2) makes; the company now seems to have lost its faith in the genre, consigning the superb Ginger Snaps to a no-frills DVD release (while larding duds like Children of the Living Dead with disc extras) and holding Steve Carpenter’s Soul Survivors hostage in the editing room for almost a year, finally dumping it out with no press screenings, barely any publicity and in clearly tampered form.

The trouble starts early when the main titles are intercut with snippets of what was clearly a longer introductory sequence establishing the characters, now whittled down in an apparent attempt to get to the scary stuff as quickly as possible. There’s also some weird continuity in the opening reel, as the four protagonists’ last night out before heading to college occurs after heroine Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) has packed up and departed her parents’ place. Following some strife among the four friends, they get into a nasty car accident that kills Cassie’s boyfriend Sean (Casey Affleck), and at his subsequent funeral, Cassie says, “I’m not sure I’m going back” to school. Cut to the next scene—and she has already returned to campus.

This is not to suggest that Soul Survivors is some sort of butchered masterpiece, but rather that it might have worked better in longer form, with more characterization to give audiences an emotional stake in what happens. Certainly, this kind of material would have provided a distraction from the run-of-the-mill supernatural occurrences that haunt Cassie, which occasionally elicit some mood and menace but are mostly ho-hum. Cassie, unable to get over Sean’s death (and lingering guilt, since she was driving when the accident happened), seems to be visited by his ghost. Meanwhile, she’s terrorized by a couple of rave-party freaks who were involved in the crash, and counseled by a priest named Jude (Luke Wilson) who also may or may not be a ghost. Carpenter attempts to build an air of mystery, but anyone with any familiarity with the genre will figure out where all this is going by about the half-hour mark.

The writer/director gets credit for attempting a film whose young people are preoccupied by real-life concerns instead of media obsessions, and a few of his setpieces do hit the mark (particularly one involving Cassie taking a midterm). Sagemiller makes for an appealing and sympathetic heroine, even if the character ends up running in circles, while Eliza Dushku makes an impression as Annabel, her bad-girl best friend (which is nonetheless the sort of role she should probably retire at this point). The male leads fare less well; Affleck is frankly uninteresting, making one wonder why Cassie ditched the edgier Matt (Wes Bentley), who has since taken up with Annabel, for Sean. For his part, Bentley has the right attitude but fails to bring his American Beauty gravity to the role. Angela Featherstone, whom Full Moon fans will remember for her notable starring turn in Dark Angel, turns up as an androgynous friend of Annabel’s whose only purpose, sadly, is to serve Carpenter’s more retrograde ideas of menace-building (raves and lesbians are scary!).

Overall, in fact, Soul Survivors is one of those movies for which being “old-fashioned” is as much a hindrance as a virtue. No doubt the trims (which have brought the movie down to just 84 minutes, including five minutes of end titles) were intended to goose Carpenter’s matter-of-fact pacing, but the movie just feels truncated, and the final-reel orgy of flash cuts and plot reversals don’t do much to beef up the excitement level. It’s also hard to imagine the target youth audience finding favor with the film’s Touched by an Angel-esque wrap-up—and, for that matter, to imagine how Carpenter and company could ever have thought they would.