October 11, 2018
The nineties were a curious time for horror movies. The success of young adult television shows like “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Dawson’s Creek,” and “Party of Five” paved the way for a slew of fright flicks that were packed with beautiful young stars and set to hip modern soundtracks. Usually, these movie were slashers, like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer. Sometimes, they were more sci-fi tinged, such as Disturbing Behavior or The Faculty. By the turn of the century, the teen horror craze had hit the supernatural realm. Case in point: 2001’s Soul Survivors.
Soul Survivors is about a young woman named Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller from “Sleeper Cell”) who, along with her friend, Annabel (Wrong Turn’s Eliza Dushku), and Annabel’s boyfriend, Matt (Wes Bentley from The Hunger Games), heads off to college. Things are complicated by the fact that Cassie’s boyfriend, Sean (A Ghost Story’s Casey Affleck), who is about to be an ex-boyfriend since she’s going to college without him, has come along to help with the move. Oh, and Matt is Cassie’s ex and still has a thing for her, which totally aggravates both Sean and Annabel.
The first night at the new college, the gang heads out to a raging party. Drunken emotions mixed with rainy roads and a mysterious reckless driver lead to an accident, and Sean is killed. While Cassie is mourning, she finds herself both being stalked by a bunch of sinister masked psychopaths and haunted by dreams and visions of Sean. Annabel and Matt are no help, either, as each of them has fallen into their own grief patterns of substance abuse and promiscuous behavior. Cassie needs to figure out if she really is in danger, or if it’s all just her mind’s way of dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Soul Survivors is the brainchild of writer/director Steve Carpenter, who had previously made The Dorm That Dripped Blood and The Kindred and would go on to create the “Grimm” TV series. It’s a fun premise for a movie, and the cast plays up the melodrama, keeping their performances surreal while stopping just short of campiness so the movie still delivers some good chills and thrills. It’s also got a shocking ending. Or at least, it has what would be a shocking ending, if the concept hadn’t been done so many times before (no spoilers!). In a way, Soul Survivors is kind of like a psychological thriller for the millennial generation.
Part of Soul Survivor’s appeal to that millennial generation is because of its cast. The principle four of Melissa Sagemiller, Eliza Dushku, Wes Bentley, and Casey Affleck were all rising stars when the movie was made, and with the exception of Sagemiller, all went on to bigger and better things, and even Sagemiller wound up having a healthy television career (which many would say is better than toiling away in movies like Soul Survivor). Affleck even ended up winning an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea. But those aren’t the only fun and familiar faces in Soul Survivors. Angela Featherstone, who is best remembered as Chloe the copy store girl in “Friends” (“We were on a BREAK!”), shows up as a goth babe who spooks around with Annabel for a while. And Luke Wilson (The Skeleton Twins, Concussion) pops in as a priest who comforts Cassie in her time of need. There aren’t as many bankable stars in Soul Survivors as there are in a movie like Scream, but there are still plenty of recognizable faces on the requisite cast-photo poster (with hottest star Eliza Dushku front and center, of course).
Truth be told, Soul Survivors comes off as a mish-mash of a bunch of different movies rather than one with its own identity. Of course, because of the hip young cast and pounding soundtrack, the film owes a debt of gratitude to all of the previous nineties horror slashers – there’s even a pool stalking scene that seems to have been ripped right out of Urban Legend. The paranormal aspects of the story (and the wicked car crash) give it a Final Destination-esque vibe. And the psychological trauma elements draw influence from movies like Jacob’s Ladder and The Serpent and the Rainbow. Steve Carpenter seems to be paying tribute instead of blatantly stealing, so while Soul Survivors may not come off as entirely original, it does what it does with a lot of love and respect for its history.
The cinematography for Soul Survivors was done by experienced director of photography Fred Murphy, who shot everything from Q and The Mothman Prophecies to Stir of Echoes and Freddy vs. Jason. For the most part, the movie is dark, rainy, and dreary, but Murphy slips in little slivers of silver linings in the clouds, mostly during Cassie’s visions of Sean. Murphy plays heavily with soft focus and shallow depth of field to manipulate the audience into seeing what they should be seeing, sometimes tricking them in the process. Like many movies of the time, Soul Survivors is dreadful and stormy looking movie, and it’s all thanks to Fred Murphy’s sharp eye for creepy photography.
Also like many movies of the time, Soul Survivors has a rocking soundtrack. The musical selections in the film are mostly electronic industrial music and heavy metal tinged with alternative and indie rock, with songs from artists like Harvey Danger, Queens of the Stone Age, Presidents of the United States of America, The Deftones, and Floodnine playing throughout. It’s full of the same style of music that populates many of the movie soundtracks of the late nineties and early aughts, even including some of the same bands. It’s a product of its time, and while the soundtrack to Soul Survivors definitely sounds dated, it’s a cool time capsule of the techno-stoner-metal era.
Soul Survivors slipped in at the tail end of the hip Hollywood horror trend, and therefore, kind of missed its calling. It’s a well-made movie, but there’s nothing in it that any horror fan hasn’t seen before. And that’s why it’s such a forgotten gem…when put up next to its contemporaries, it’s a fairly forgettable movie.