It’s difficult to be too harsh on made-for-TV horror movies.
Once upon a time you might have slyly set the VCR to capture them with the same illicit thrill as an episode of Eurotrash or a rare Channel 5 showing of Christopher Lambert’s Fortress.
Quite what the point of them is now, mind you, where kids can happily torrent snuff films of Belarussian dissidents being tortured in basements, it’s difficult to be sure. Especially in the case of Dead Souls, adapted from the book by Bram Stoker Award finalist Michael Laimo for cable horror channel Chiller, whose target audience are presumably old enough to drink whiskey and fondle handguns while watching A Serbian Film.
Within minutes, Dead Souls banishes most contemporary cynicism, being – once you get past the surprisingly graphic and effective opening sequence of a family being murdered one by one by the pastor head of the household – a pleasingly daft Nineties style supernatural horror in the mould of the bloodless Fallen or elaborately overcooked Stigmata, with a side helping of teen angst alienation horror.
Surly teen Johnny (The Amityville Horror’s Jesse James) receives a letter revealing him to be the surviving offspring from the gristly prologue – then a baby and unable to remember his family and true horrific fate that befell them. We of course remember it full well, and knowing he’s needed to complete some sort of ancient ritual doesn’t half strip any of the tension out of that first ponderous introduction to his hometown and abandoned farmstead, because we’re already implicitly aware of the threat.
Despite his hard line religious upbringing, he doesn’t really mention God much, even when confronted by the blasphemous ritual once attempted by his father or the spirits of his parents which turn supporting characters into unkillable murder mannequins.
He also has awkward Nineties movie sex, shy of only a spot of hand clasping and some saxophone, with well groomed runaway Emma (Caprica’s Magda Apanowicz) who was living in his ancestral home, despite the fact he doesn’t appear to have ever spoken to a woman who wasn’t his sour faced, piss-guzzling mother or a wizened old nun at his preppy Catholic boys school.
Poor narrative logic, reheated cliches, and mediocre acting are by no means unique to made-for-TV movies – they’re the three-headed albatross horror has had slung around its neck for decades now, but the low production values emphasise the flaws in a way that a bit of big dumb Platinum Dunes gloss and pumping nu-metal soundtrack would help disguise them.
The modesty of the setting, in which a road with occasional passing traffic can be found yards from the not-at-all-isolated, but apparently too-far-to-get-help creepy murder house, and the constraints and flatness of the direction – it’s never night, just overcast – and there’s never enough detail to adequately fill the frame. Where average gives way to truly laughable is in the climax, in which the house is somehow effectively besieged by two zombies, and a tired Bill Moseley (House Of A 1,000 Corpses) shows up to deliver a graceless adrenalin shot of exposition.
Dead Souls, then, is fairly rubbish, but no more rubbish than the vast majority of similar films churned out on a regular basis, and there’s something oddly endearing about its modest cash’n’carry cheapness and sheer determination to tell such an ambitious and provocative story on a cable budget.
You would have totally taped this had it been made 25 years ago, and you might even enjoy it now.