If anything, My Soul to Take proves that while many, including myself, were ready to dismiss Wes Craven as a has-been, the man himself apparently refuses to go quietly to the retirement home for old American horror filmmakers. The weird thing about writing that is that if you were to tell me a day ago that My Soul to Take was going to prove that Craven isn't the joke Cursed and Red Eye made him out to be, I would've laughed in your face.
My Soul to Take, another post-converted 3D film, follows a group of seven teens in rural Riverton as they're stalked by the Riverton Ripper, a serial killer that murdered seven people 16 years ago and soon after expired at the exact moment when the aforementioned seven teens were born. That sounds like a new A Nightmare on Elm Street knockoff, and no matter what anyone says, 3D is still a cash cow, so one could hardly begrudge Craven, who hasn't directed a feature in five years, for wanting to cash in. But, surprisingly enough, Craven's actually striving for a level of emotional and thematic engagement with My Soul to Take that he hasn't gotten near since his 1989 voodoosploitation gem The Serpent and the Rainbow. It's like he had a creative fire sale and all of his thematic preoccupations had to go—to Riverton, that is. Craven stumbles throughout the film's top-heavy 107 minutes, but the fact that he's earnestly trying to make an on-the-level, snark-free horror flick signals a welcome sea change in his career.
Once the Ripper, who has the kind of disheveled hobo gothic look that Rob Zombie used to have before he started making movies, reemerges and starts killing the "Riverton Seven," all of the town's leery eyes turn to Bug (Max Thieriot), the film's soulful teenage outsider. Obviously, this being a Craven film (i.e., people that wear black hats almost always wear white ones too, and vice versa), Bug can't really be the killer: He's shown to have a camped-up version of multiple personality disorder where the sundry voices in his head simultaneously vie for screen time, but only in contained, Tourette's-y fits. So even if Bug did it, he didn't. It could, however, also be any of the other six teen protags: Jerome (Denzel Whitaker), the inexplicably well-connected hanger-on; Alex (John Magaro), Bug's best and only friend; Penelope (Zena Gray), the Jesus freak; Brandon (Nick Lashaway), the horny jock; or Brittany (Paulina Olszynski), the hotty. The only one of the seven that isn't a suspect is Jay (Jeremy Chu), the first dead kid.
My Soul to Take's main appeal is watching Craven frantically throw as many red herrings at his audience as he can. Every one of the Riverton Seven is bursting at the seams with teen angst, even honorary member Fang (Emily Meade), the group's gossip and Bug's cousin. The film's plot is a flurry of false leads including missing medical records, a teen pregnancy, an abusive stepfather, schoolyard bullying, inherited psychosis, and an unhealthy fixation with the California condor.
All of these clues are thrown at the viewer pell-mell with a sense of urgency that speaks to the refreshing bugfuck insanity of the film. Craven's total lack of self-control makes My Soul to Take an overdone Frankensteinian fusion of various generic parts: It should and almost does come apart several times, most notably during a bewilderingly semi-serious reenactment of the mirror gag from Duck Soup and almost every scene with Penelope. An offhand crack about "prayer conditioning" reeks of the sarcastic but mostly sane Craven of the '90s.
Thankfully, the increasingly demented but exciting Craven of the new millennium quickly regains control after such hiccups. If the film's young cast wasn't as surprisingly durable as it is, all of Craven's frothing at the mouth would be merely irritating. But they're good enough to give Craven the ample room he desperately needed to let loose with some of the best expressions of his typical thematic preoccupations. His fear of technology is especially strange, but it's fun to gape at here in the scenes where Bug treats a cellphone like a foreign object, or when security camera footage shows us the exact writing on the Ripper's knife but somehow can't make out his face out at all beyond a generic mosaic.
Likewise, the interplay between Alex and Bug is especially satisfying, as in the way Alex teasingly teaches Bug that the only way to be a man is to take all the hits life gives you and grin while doing it. It's as earnest a life lesson as I can recall from a Craven film. Maybe when he went crazy and decided to throw everything including the kitchen sink and matching proverbial Cuisinart at us, Craven became an honest-to-goodness humanist. Either that or dementia has made him a more interesting hack.