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"SOUL SURVIVORS"
(2001) (Melissa Sagemiller, Wes Bentley) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: Having survived a devastating highway accident that killed her boyfriend, a college student begins to question her sanity after experiencing repeated visions of him as well as others who are apparently intent on harming her.
PLOT:
Cassie (MELISSA SAGEMILLER) is a high school graduate who's now headed off to Middleton College with her best friend, Annabel (ELIZA DUSHKU). Accompanying them on the drive is Sean (CASEY AFFLECK), Cassie's boyfriend, and Matt (WES BENTLEY), Annabel's boyfriend who just so happens to be Cassie's ex.

After arriving at the college, the four decide to attend a wild dance party off campus, where Cassie has an unsettling run-in with an odd, masked fellow. That doesn't prevent her, however, from eventually making out with Matt who asked for just one last good-bye kiss before heading back to Harvard. Sean is understandably jealous upon catching them in the act, and on the way back to Middleton at night and in the rain, they end up getting in a bad accident where he's killed.

Several weeks later, Cassie is still trying to cope with that loss, with Annabel and Mat -- who's decided to stay at Middleton -- doing what they can to help her through this trying time. That soon becomes harder to do as Cassie begins having odd visions, not only of Sean as if he's alive, but also of the masked man and an accomplice who seem determined to harm her.

As she finds Annabel's new androgynous friend, Raven (ANGELA FEATHERSTONE), somewhat creepy, and confides in a local, compassionate priest, Father Jude (LUKE WILSON), who tries to help her, Cassie tries to figure out what's going on and begins to question her sanity when the visions increase in number and intensity.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
It's not uncommon for critics and moviegoers alike to question filmmakers and the major Hollywood studios' logic, decision-making and general common sense when it comes to certain films they make or release.

Just this year, people have asked what in the world Steven Spielberg was thinking with the ending of "A.I.," whether we really needed a third installment of the "Crocodile Dundee" series, and the name and unemployment status of the person or people responsible for green-lighting and unleashing "Freddy Got Fingered" on the world.

The one place where I never - at least so far - have questioned them is in their decision to open certain movies "cold." By that, I mean the times when they realize a given film is awful and thus decide to release it sight unseen to the unsuspecting masses and without allowing critics to see it in advance. The logic, if you will, is that they hope to make a quick buck or two before likely negative word of mouth sends their picture to an early box office grave.

Although I question why films such as "Freddy" and "Battlefield Earth" escaped the chilly treatment, I've yet to see a cold movie that was any good. "Soul Survivors," the latest such film from Artisan Entertainment, keeps that record intact. A supernatural thriller wannabe along the lines of "The Sixth Sense," "The Others" and "Jacob's Ladder," the film does have the inherent potential to be decent.

After all, there's the built-in surprise ending and all of the obligatory hints leading up to it along the way that we're supposed to pick up or recall in 20/20 post-movie hindsight. Yet, the way in which writer/director Steve Carpenter (writer of "Blue Streak," director and co-writer of "The Kindred") has executed the otherwise passable scenario results in a picture that's too predictable, not scary or unnerving enough, and gets unwieldy when it should be tightening its cinematic noose around the viewer's neck.

Among the film's many problems, a rather large one is that the basic story isn't terribly intriguing, especially when compared to a kid seeing dead people or a WWII era single mother dealing with a haunted manor. Here, we have a teen whose boyfriend is killed in a car crash that then causes her to have visions of both him and some nameless thugs - one sporting the requisite expressionless mask - who are after her for some reason.

No one else sees what she does - natch - thus causing her and presumably us to think that maybe she's gone a bit loony. Having seen such films before, however, we obviously know the latter isn't true and thus put on our cinematic Sherlock Holmes caps and try to figure out what's really occurring.

Unfortunately for Carpenter and his picture, it's too easy to figure out, a fact that's due as much in part to previous such films training us a bit too well in deductive thinking, as it is to the rather mediocre way in which the puzzle has been arranged. It doesn't help that the "cover" material - designed to mislead, distract and/or scare us - isn't particularly effective or that the performers don't sell their characters or the story enough for us to care about either.

In "The Sixth Sense" and "The Others," the characters and their predicament instantly had me hooked. I felt their pain, uneasiness and terror, and wanted them to be okay. Sadly, that's not the case here as the characters feel like straight to video creations and the story's missing that extra special oomph or touch to make it work, let along match the quality of what preceded it.

As the lead character, newcomer Melissa Sagemiller simply doesn't have what it takes to make us care or worry about Cassie any more than the various fodder-based characters who appear in most any mad slasher film (that this one resembles in its cat and mouse moments).

While some of the behavior of the supporting characters is explained by the late in the game revelation/twist, the performances of them by Casey Affleck ("Committed," "Drowning Mona"), Wes Bentley ("The Claim," "American Beauty") and Eliza Dushku ("Bring It On," "True Lies") aren't much better, while Angela Featherstone ("The Wedding Singer," "200 Cigarettes") and Luke Wilson ("Legally Blonde," "Blue Streak") can't do much in their smaller parts.

Simply put, the overall film feels like a high school production of a major Broadway play in relation to being an effectively creepy, knock your socks off supernatural thriller. All of the elements are in place and the people know what to do, but the end result isn't as convincing or engaging as the real thing.

A bit better in hindsight that how it comes off during its less than ninety minute runtime, the film is hampered by some bad acting, dialogue and an ineffective and occasionally clumsy directorial approach. All of that collectively gets in the way of what could have been a halfway decent horror flick, thus resulting in "Soul Survivors" rating as just a 3 out of 10.




Reviewed September 7, 2001 / Posted September 7, 2001


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