There are few subgenres of horror movie as cost-effective than the haunted house flick. All you need is the right creepy location, a handful of actors and few good ideas about how to spook an audience. Thus, television film producers have returned to the haunted house time and again as a source of affordable t.v. scale frights. Dead Souls is a recent example of the form, produced for Chiller TV, and while it has its dark heart in the right place, it shows that you need to apply some genuine inspiration to the aforementioned elements to make an effective small-screen spook show.
Dead Souls takes its premise from a novel by Michael Laimo. It begins with a fairly intense opening reel depicting a demented priest trying to kill and crucify his entire family in the barn of his rural home. The only survivor is an infant who grows up to be Johnny (Jesse James), who discovers his true identity when his 18th birthday arrives and he inherits the old family home. He travels to the town to see the house and hopefully learn about his birth family. However, he soons discovers that there are few friendly faces to greet him — and some malevolent spirits with mysterious intentions for him. With the help of drifter Emma (Magda Apanowicz) and ex-Sheriff Depford (Bill Moseley), he tries to discovers how to appease the spirits before they extract a bloody price.
The premise is essentially boilerplate haunted house material, albeit one with uniquely gruesome/frenetic opening and closing reels. It benefits from solid production values for a low-budget t.v. effort (particularly a creepy, decrepit main house location), earnest performances from its leads and a decent sense of visual polish.
Unfortunately, Dead Souls has two key problems. The first is the fact that the entire middle act is rather dull, propped up with a series of weak moments of “creepy” atmosphere and fake scares that won’t raise an eyebrow with horror fans. The other problem is that Colin Theys’ direction lacks the craftsmanship to make this familiar material distinctive. He’s has trouble constructing the mechanics of suspense necessary to achieve a scare — and at least half of the moments designed for knee-jerk shocks fall flat due to poor staging.
In short, Dead Souls isn’t the best or worst haunted house t.v. movie out there — it’s just too mediocre to rise above its inherent familiarity and too lacking in filmmaking chops and inspiration to be memorable.
Blu-Ray Notes: like previous Theys/Chiller TV collaboration Remains, Dead Souls has gotten a pretty nice blu-ray release from Shout! Factory via their Scream Factory line. The anamorphic transfer does well by the digital imagery — and those familiar with the t.v. broadcast version might want to note the version here is uncut, running an additional 7 minutes.. 5.1 and 2.0 stereo lossless tracks are included — the 5.1 was used for this review that does well by the film’s basic multi-channel mix.
Extras include a set of t.v. spots, a brief set tour conducted by Theys and a 7-minute blooper reel. The biggest extra is a commentary track featuring Theys, producer Andrew Gernhard and writer John Doolan: it’s a pretty lively affair packed with behind-the-scenes detail, funny memories of the actors and plenty of good-natured ribbing between the participants. Overall, a nice package if you’re interested in current made-for-cable efforts.