Review: “Soul Survivors” (Film)

Well, I was still in the mood for cheesy early 2000s horror movies. So, I thought that I’d finally take a look at a film that I’ve been morbidly curious about for at least a decade and a half, I am of course talking about a film from 2001 called “Soul Survivors”.

If I remember rightly, I first noticed a DVD of this film in a shop in Plymouth during a holiday in the early-mid 2000s. Intrigued and amused by the bizarre idea of a “12 Certificate” horror movie (for reference, most “PG-13” US horror movies usually get a “15” certificate in the UK), I ended up buying a copy of it out of morbid curiosity. It then languished unwatched for many years, being one of those films I never quite felt enthusiastic enough to watch. Then, a week or so before writing this review, I suddenly remembered it and felt the same sense of morbid curiosity.

But, when I searched for my copy of it, I suddenly realised that I must have sold or given it away at some point within the preceding decade. Luckily, second hand DVDs of the film were going fairly cheaply online (though, even at about two or three quid, that’s still relatively expensive for this film)… and I decided to get another copy.

So, let’s take a look at “Soul Survivors”. This review will contain MAJOR SPOILERS for both this film and for another horror film too.

The film is set in America and begins with a woman called Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) saying goodbye to her parents and getting ready to go to university in a town called Middleton. Her boyfriend Sean (Casey Affleck), her slightly creepy ex-boyfriend Matt (Wes Bentley) and her “edgy” hard-partying “alternative” friend Annabel (Eliza Dushku) go along for the ride too.

And Cassie also brings an adorable stuffed dinosaur along for the ride too.

Sometime later, they visit a party at a fraternity house. Annabel says that she’s heard of a much more interesting party and the group decide to go there instead. It is some kind of ultra-stylised gothic rave at an abandoned church – filled with loud music, blazing torches and people dressed in dark clothes. So far, so cool.

And, yes, the music here is the kind of late 1990s/early 2000s industrial/goth music that you’d expect, or at least a generic approximation of it.

However, a creepy masked man accosts Cassie whilst she is dancing. She shoves him away and walks outside. Sean joins her and they talk about their relationship for a while, with Cassie feeling bizarrely hesitant to say “I love you” to him. Matt overhears this and is filled with brooding angst, between sips from a random hip flask. Eventually he awkwardly announces his presence and they decide to go home.

Whilst Sean goes into the club to look for Annabel, Matt has an angst-ridden conversation with Cassie before creepily trying to kiss her. Sean sees this and gets the wrong idea. This causes a bit of drama during the rainy car journey home. Cassie is the designated driver, but she gets distracted by the argument she’s having with Sean. A car suddenly swerves in front of the group’s car and both cars go over some railings and plunge into the darkness.

As you can probably guess, this isn’t one of those “everyone walks away unharmed” kind of accidents.

Some time later, the group attend Sean’s funeral. A few weeks after this, Annabel wants to help Cassie forget her troubles by suggesting regular nights out and Matt also sees an opportunity to get closer to Cassie, but Cassie is still unsettled by everything that is happened. A feeling that only intensifies when she starts having disturbing hallucinations and begins to notice a creepy masked man following her…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is a bad film. There isn’t even any redeeming “so bad that it’s good” fun to be found here. I went into this film with low expectations and still emerged bitterly disappointed by it.

Whether it is the generic characters, the annoying teen angst, the excessive plot twist foreshadowing, the insultingly stupid ending or even the fact that the purgatorial torment of watching this film feels considerably longer than the eighty-five minutes listed on the DVD case, this is a film that is best avoided at all costs. And the real shame is that it could have been so much better. Seriously, there are a few small hints of a good film buried under the literal mountains of awfulness.

So, I should probably start by talking about this film’s horror elements, which are a mixture of reasonably ok psychological horror, un-scary jump scares, a few creepy characters, an ultra-predictable “shocking” plot twist, some slasher movie style segments, gothic horror and a few blood-spattered hallucinations.

Some of the psychological horror segments are actually quite inventive.

And there are actually a few slightly suspenseful moments too.

Although these horror elements do become vaguely suspenseful, slightly creepy and/or mildly compelling sometimes – especially in the later parts of the film – the film then completely squanders all of this with a truly dreadful ending. Seriously, this is one of the worst endings that I’ve ever seen!

Imagine the excellent movie “Jacob’s Ladder” – but with it’s genuinely shocking and well-handled final twist telegraphed very far in advance in giant forty-foot letters… and with an utterly corny “It was all a dream!” happy ending tacked onto it at the very last minute too. Words fail me!

This should be a deleted scene and NOT the film’s ending!

Still, although the film very clearly hints that it is set in some kind of purgatory-like limbo between life and death long before it goes through the belated formality of actually telling you this, some parts of this are at least handled in a reasonably clever way via the subtle use of symbolism.

Whether it is the fiery goth club or the headstone-like crossed tile patterns underneath the swimming pool or the fact that the goth club and the church both appear in exactly the same building etc… I have to give this film praise for some of it’s symbolism. If “Soul Survivors” had limited the foreshadowing to just this subtle symbolism – then it would have been a better film. However, the plot twist is so heavily foreshadowed (with numerous cutaway shots, random moments etc…) that it barely even qualifies as a plot twist.

A lot of the other problems with this film’s horror elements involve the characters. Although this is theoretically a “creepy” horror movie, a lot of this horror is lost thanks to the completely and utterly boring blandness of the film’s characters.

Literally all of the characters in this film have about as much depth as a sheet of paper. You can sum most of them up in about 3-5 words and that’s about it. There’s the goody two-shoes main character, the “edgy” goth friend, the eerie masked man, the creepy ex-boyfriend, the intense boyfriend etc… The best way to summarise this film’s characters is that they are cheesy and stylised in the way that characters in adverts are. They are cheesy and stylised in the way that a focus group of executives trying to “realistically” portray “the hip youth of today” would be.

Yes, this makes the film unintentionally amusing at times, but – thanks to all of the angst-ridden drama and the brooding emotional tone of the film – this unfortunately never quite reaches “so bad that it’s good” levels. It’s just “so bad” 😦

Likewise, this would have been a much more interesting film if Annabel had been the main character instead of Cassie. One of the many problems with this film is that it tries to be an “edgy” and hedonistic gothic film whilst also trying to be a vaguely moralistic Christianity-influenced supernatural drama too. If the film had actually picked a side and run with it whole-heartedly, then it would have been so much more fun to watch.

Seriously, Annabel would have been a much more interesting choice of main character for this film.

I’d have loved to have seen an “edgy” gothic film about an “edgy” gothic character stuck in some kind of weird purgatorial death realm. It would have been so much cooler – with the film’s main character fitting in well with the story’s atmosphere and the film being able to approach the story’s themes in a slightly interesting, original and irreverently unpredictable way. But, no – this film does the classic 1980s Hollywood slasher movie thing of making the main character a paragon of moral virtue who borders on being vaguely offended by the very idea of fun or anything vaguely “alternative”.

Time for three riveting years of diligent study and wholesome extra-curricular activities!

Interestingly, talking of “edginess”, there was actually an alternative “R-rated” version of this film released on DVD in the US.

Looking at a list of differences between the versions [NSFW], it actually sounds a little bit more like a proper horror movie (albeit a somewhat sleazy one) than the toned-down “12 Certificate” version released here in the UK. However, the UK version of the film actually contains the “decapitated dinosaur” scene that only seems to appear in the “R-rated” US version.

Still, for all of this film’s many faults and missteps, I didn’t completely hate it. Not only does this film have lots of wonderfully dramatic lighting (even if it’s sometimes slightly too gloomy to see what is going on) and lots of wonderfully gothic set designs, but some parts have a wonderful early-mid 2000s goth atmosphere that reminded me a little of an excellent old computer game called “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“. There’s something gloriously atmospheric, stylised and reassuring about early-mid 2000s American goth culture. And, even in a bad film, it’s still an absolute joy to see it.

Quite a few scenes have really good lighting and/or set design. Shame about the plot and characters though.

This is a mainstream Hollywood movie with some gothic characters and a gothic atmosphere 🙂 I miss the early 2000s 😦

Likewise, this film made me nostalgic for the days when one of the main genres of film aimed at teenagers were actually horror movies. My memories of seeing films like “Resident Evil: Apocalypse“, “The Ring”, “The Grudge” etc… at the cinema during my teenage years in the early-mid 2000s are wonderful and cherished things. I even remember seeing a screening of the director’s cut of “Alien” in a mainstream multiplex cinema back in the day too 🙂

In this insipid age of generic superhero films, the very fact that this film is from a time when horror movies were “popular” automatically gives it a retroactive upgrade when watched today. It may be a bad film, but it is at least wonderfully evocative of a more sophisticated age when horror movies were as popular as superhero movies are today 🙂

All in all, this is a bad film – but not an entirely terrible one. Even though the film as a whole ruins it’s horror elements with generic characters and an utterly stupid happy ending, there are at least a few vaguely good horror sequences here in addition to some good set designs/lighting, some well-handled symbolism and a slight frisson of early 2000s nostalgia (for anyone who was both lucky and unlucky enough to grow up then). It isn’t a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t quite bring myself to absolutely hate it. I’m more disappointed with it than anything else.

If you want a genuinely fun early 2000s “so bad that it’s good” horror movie, watch “Ghost Ship” instead. If you want something gothic from the early-mid 2000s, play “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” instead. If you want a scary story with well-written characters that is set in a small American university, then read Sarah Pinborough’s “Tower Hill” instead. And, if the concept behind this film intrigues you, then – for heaven’s sake- watch “Jacob’s Ladder” instead! Whatever interests you about this film, there’s something else out there that is much better!

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just barely get a two. And, even then, I’m probably being generous.

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