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Dead Souls (2012)
Blu-ray Disc Released: 6/25/2013
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 6/19/2013
When I was a kid, made-for-TV movies were a pretty big deal. The scope of these movies fell into several categories, but the most interesting ones were the "blockbuster" mini-series, which were often referred to as a "television event" or the movies which were clearly knock-offs of a successful theatrical film. While a lot of these projects were garbage, some of them, such as 1979's Salem's Lot, were memorable. Today, when we think of made-for-TV movies, things playing on LifeTime immediately come to mind. And no offense to LifeTime, but their products simply don't measure up to the movies of the past. So, imagine my surprise when I came across a decent made-for-TV movie from Chiller entitled Dead Souls.
As Dead Souls opens, we witness a father stalk and crucify the various members of his family, leaving only a baby behind. The story then leaps ahead 17 years. Johnny Petrie (Jesse James) lives in New York City with his domineering mother, Mary (Geraldine Hughes). She is a very religious woman and only allows Johnny to attend church and school. One day, Johnny receives a letter from an attorney from a small town in Maine. A phone call reveals that the now 18-year old Johnny is entitled to an inheritance. When Mary hears this news, her reaction is so severe that she's hospitalized. Johnny seizes this opportunity to travel to Maine. There, he learns that he is now the owner of a dilapidated farm and some land. He also learns that the property belonged to his biological family and that he's adopted. Despite the condition of the place, Johnny feels drawn to it and decides to spend the night. He will soon discover that the house and barn are swarming with the restless spirits of those who died there so long ago and they are very anxious to welcome him back into the fold.
It seems that a vast majority of the low-budget independent horror films which arrive these days are of the backwoods Texas Chainsaw Massacre variety, so it's nice to see someone taking a shot at an old-fashioned ghost story. The "you've inherited a spooky old house" conceit is about as gothic and old-fashioned as one can get, but Dead Souls does try to add a few things to the mixture.
Based on a novel by Michael Laimo, goes beyond simply having "ghosts" and offers a somewhat complex explanation for what happened at the farm (which shows that someone did their research into religious history). There is also a subplot concerning possession, so there is a lot going on here. Given that, Director Colin Theys and Screenwriter John Doolan have wisely decided to not let Dead Souls get out of control. This could have easily been an insane hyper-kinetic movie which focused more on action than anything else. Presumably, the budget didn't allow for that, so Theys goes for more of a slow-burn, and if you're the kind of viewer who likes to look for things happening in the background, then Dead Souls will satisfy that craving, as the ghosts are often watching Johnny. The movie also doesn't go overboard with gore or the designs of the ghosts, opting for creepy instead.
While Dead Souls is impressive for a made-for-TV movie, it does have its share of problems. First of all, despite that it's incredibly cliched, one must buy the fact that Johnny would want to stay in a house which looks as if it should have been condemned years ago. (Hell, in the pre-credit sequence, the house looks like it's about to fall apart!) Then, there is a sub-plot concerning a squatter in the house which is simply odd and didn't go where I thought was going to. While Theys does keep the story reined in, the suddenly deluge of information in the third act is chaotic and doesn't really match the level of dread felt in the first half of the movie. Finally, there is simply something off about the pacing of Dead Souls. Despite the fact that three editors worked on the movie (one of them being Theys), it simply doesn't feel "tight" enough. Scenes begin and end on odd beats as if the actors were waiting for "action" or "cut" to be called. I wasn't looking for a breakneck pace here, as it wouldn't have matched the tone of the story, but "slow" can easily look like "amateurish" if one isn't careful.
I don't want to sound as if I'm heaping undue praise on Dead Souls. Is this a great movie? No. It is above average for a made-for-TV, or even a direct-to-video film? Yes. While the movie has some issues, its focus on creepy scares, solid acting from James, and a story which veers from the norm just enough to be interesting makes it worth renting. If nothing else, it's good to see someone looking to a novel for a story instead of another recycled screenplay.
Dead Souls makes self-crucifixion look easy on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Shout! Factory. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 33 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing only a trace amount of grain and no defects from the source material. The movie shows few bright colors, but the hues look good here, with the black being rich and true. The image leans towards being too dark at times, but not enough to mask the action. The level of detail is good, while the depth left something to be desired. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 2.3 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. To be honest, I wasn't expecting much from this track, but there are some nicely done moments of surround sound here, taking advantage of the fact that Johnny keeps hearing strange noises in the house. The stereo effects also surprise with their ability to highlight off-screen sounds. The subwoofer effects add to the "shock" sequences.
The Dead Souls Blu-ray Disc contains a few extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Colin Theys, Screenwriter John Doolan, and Producer Andrew Gernhard. "Set Tour" (6 minutes) has Theys leading us around the set and location, showing us various aspects the workplace and the production. We get an 8-minute reel of BLOOPERS. The final extras are five TV SPOTS for the movie.
Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.