It’s a wonder that bad movies don’t disappear. You’d think after getting destroyed by critics and bombing in the box office, they would evaporate, dropped in some endless pit of cinematic irrelevancy. My Soul to Take is one such film. It’s the sort of movie you have either forgotten about or never heard of in the first place. And yet, watched with generous eyes six years after its release, it has something to offer for the curious Cravenite.

Wes Craven was a pioneer of the slasher genre and a man who ushered in new levels of explicitness in horror. After a five year hiatus from filmmaking following New Nightmare, he directed and wrote My Soul to Take (2010). The writing part is important because it means the film is rooted in Craven’s personal experience, differentiating it from the Scream franchise for which he is most famous. As a result, it’s a window into the filmmaker’s soul, albeit one smudged with clichéd characters and trite scares.

The phrase “my soul to take” comes from an 18th century prayer for children. Any kid who has ever been forced to repeat this supposedly innocent prayer is probably familiar with the deeply disturbing line: “If I should die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take.” Brought up in a strict Baptist household where “we didn’t smoke, drink, play cards, dance or go to movies,” Craven seems to know it, too. Indeed, the evidence of his Christian upbringing and his consequent self-questioning are reflected in My Soul to Take. When Craven attended Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school, he had to confront new ideas about the world. As he said in one interview, “I was going through a very slow, but definite…questioning of my own inner realities.” The lead character of Soul faces a similar internal battle over reality. His questions are cornily dramatized, of course, but they reflect Craven’s lifelong preoccupation with Christian-based struggles of faith.

My Soul to Take opens in classic, slasher fashion with a bloody prologue. Abel Plenkov is a family man with schizophrenia and his name is worth mentioning because it’s an obvious reference to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Poor Abel realizes that one of his split personalities is the “Riverton Ripper” and he reacts by stabbing his wife. He’s chased down by the cops but the ghoul buried inside him refuses to die. He eventually causes a massive car accident in which he either dies or (maybe!) sneaks away to live as some kind of dirty demon in the woods.

Sixteen years later, a group of teenagers meet in the woods to commemorate the Riverton Ripper’s mayhem. They’re a cast of characters we’re seen a million times before: the mean jock (Nick Lashaway), the pretty blonde (Paulina Olszynski), the religious dork (Zena Grey) and the mysterious white, male protagonist (Max Thieriot). Craven implies that these teens, born on the day the Ripper “died,” have somehow inherited his evil soul. A long stretch of exposition follows, inducing boredom and perhaps a nap. One teen gets stabbed. They go to school. The lead character gets in trouble. I’m falling asleep just writing this.

Craven tries hard to work in symbols including the condor, a type of vulture that eats dead things, and such go-to plot devices as a single mother, unrequited crushes and an abusive stepfather, but none of them work. Soul to Take is a mainstream horror film that affords these storytelling elements no room to develop. Instead, Craven should have focused his energy on choreographing the kills. It’s where his strength lies.

As the teens are picked off, Bug (Thieriot) becomes increasingly haunted by thoughts of Abel and the film follows a well-worn path of shock and redemption. The production had a $25 million budget, which is unbelievable. They must have spent it on snacks. The sets look like cardboard and the costumes are mostly t-shirts and jeans. Nor did the murder scenes require much post because the killer is a guy in a cloak. Following comparatively tame, stab ‘n’ die movies like this one; the current dominance of special effects in horror comes to seem like a necessary development.
My Soul to Take is “bad” in the sense that the dialogue falls flat, the characters are one-dimensional and the thrills are cheap. And yet, My Soul to Take lives on. You can download it, rent it or pick up a copy of the DVD, perhaps lying in a garbage can near you, and you can see how Wes Craven tried to confront the incomprehensible side of human nature.

Before he died, the director was interviewed about his beliefs for a website “dedicated to faith and inspiration.” He admitted to the reporter he did not attend any kind of traditional religious service. Instead, he made films. “I think that’s…the best approach to (the) spiritual I’m capable of.” With this in mind, maybe Soul isn’t so bad after all. It’s got soul—it’s just missing the brains.

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