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.