I make exceptions for close friends, because I love to ball-bust, but otherwise I see little point in the "You liked this movie so I can't take your opinion of this one seriously" game - even a critic you fully trust is bound to disagree with your take every now and then. If anything, I distrust people who always agree on everything. But I did call foul on a few critics who labeled Wes Craven's 2009 film My Soul To Take as "another generic slasher" or something along those lines, because love or hate the film, there is absolutely no way one could say it was "generic" if they actually watched the movie. Sorry, but if I had a nickel for every slasher movie that killed its female characters off first, had a protagonist dress as a California Condor and puke on a bully, and let the hero get the living shit beat out of him by his sister out of nowhere, I'd have precisely one nickel.
Before I start my defense proper, I want to put a disclaimer here - this is not some unsung masterpiece. It's kind of a mess, but Craven is not entirely to blame despite being the writer/director (his first screenplay since New Nightmare, in fact). Originally shot in 2008, there were extensive reshoots and rewrites in 2009 (and then a 3D post-conversion that delayed it until October of 2010); some seem to be his choice but many were enforced by the studio, which was understandably nervous about this peculiar, high-concept blend of psychological and slasher horror. Wes himself even had trouble summing up the movie's premise in a few lines, so how could the marketing team possibly explain it in a quick trailer when they had to keep flashing "FROM THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE!" and "IN 3D!" and letting the images speak for themselves while alt-rock band Sick Puppies yelled about how it's "BEEN A LONG! TIME! COMING"? I have yet to fully piece together the original way the movie went, though it seems at one point it was more like a blend of his Freddy Krueger and Horace Pinker characters, with the deceased serial killer returning from the grave to exact revenge on the children who were born the night of his death.
However, it's more interesting than that in its final form - the specifics are hazy, but it seems our killer (Raúl Esparza, seen in a lengthy opening sequence) is actually just one of seven personalities that the man has, and when he is killed by the police, all seven personalities were somehow transferred to all of the local pregnant women's wombs, resulting in as many premature babies, each one given one of those personalities. We never get to see all seven of them in action in Esparza's character; just the killer and a "normal" one, so it's unclear (nor does it really matter) who's who when we cut to 16 years later as the "Riverton Seven" are celebrating their joint birthday, but it DOES give a decent excuse for their stock personalities. One is a hothead bully, one's an overly religious "weirdo," one's an artist, etc. And then there's Bug, played by Bates Motel's Max Thieriot. The hook of the movie is the possibility that he's snapped and is the one killing his friends, as he seems to be absorbing their personalities as they die. For example, Jay (Jeremy Chu) is the artistic one who creates the giant puppets used in their annual Ripper Day (celebrating their birthday and the anniversary of the Ripper's death - how did this tradition start, exactly?), and he is the first to go. Shortly after, Bug suddenly displays the skills to create a "puppet" of sorts - a California Condor costume for his best friend Alex to wear during the film's nuttiest sequence (which speaks volumes). Not all of this is exactly clear; we haven't known Bug long enough to know that he didn't have that ability already anyway, but that's an interesting concept all the same - and seems to be of far more interest to Craven than the usual slasher scenes, which tend to be quick (more than one kill is off-screen entirely, in fact). I actually tried to find a clear shot of the killer in the movie, and this was the best I got - not exactly standard procedure for a "generic teen slasher."
But Bug doesn't just gain their skills - he gets their whole personalities it seems, and begins displaying near psychotic behavior as they temporarily take control. Thieriot is a pretty solid actor and gifted mimic; the scene where he races through all of the absorbed personalities back to back is as impressive as it is unnerving. And he (realistically) has no awareness of the other personalities, putting the film's depiction of MPD a notch or two above silly junk like Identity, if nothing else. Plus, Craven draws parallels with puberty - his mind is changing in ways he can't explain just as his body is, and buddy Alex consistently goads Bug's ability to "be a man" in order to hammer the point home. As I've said before, Wes is probably the most intelligent (on paper anyway) of all the "Masters of Horror" - he has a master's degree in philosophy and a bachelor's in psychology, which is probably why the films he's written, however good or bad they may have turned out, have always been built around more interesting concepts than he's often given credit for. Admittedly, it's hard to focus on the highbrow ideas of Shocker when there's a big guy in an orange jumpsuit making jokes, but as with this film, Craven explores the idea of sons trying not to repeat the sins of their fathers* when possibly supernatural forces seem to be pushing them in that direction.
Which is why it's a shame Craven's never found a consistent writing partner; he's got these great, even fascinating ideas and a penchant for horror (while he's tried other genres, he never comes off like he's embarrassed by his niche, unlike some of his '80s peers), but they don't always translate to screen all that smoothly. And that problem is exacerbated in My Soul To Take, as he was in his late 60s when he wrote it and most of the characters are 16 year old kids. His attempts at teen-y dialogue (more than one pal has likened it, not very favorably, to the dialogue in Brick) can be pretty painful, especially when it comes to the character of Fang (Emily Meade), who seemingly runs the entire school from the girl's bathroom. Announcing that it's "Fang Time" and inquiring if "3s and 8s" were delivered, you could be forgiven for thinking that the movie was written by aliens during these sequences, and even after viewing the movie two or three times I'm still not quite sure what any of this has to do with anything. I know Fang has to be set up as an antagonist for Bug for a later development (one that still kind of blows my mind due to how/when it's revealed), but there had to have been a better way to do this, right? And that's not even mentioning poor Zena Grey's dialogue; she deserves some kind of award for getting through "If it gets too hot, just turn up the prayer conditioning" without cracking up. Clunky exposition has also always been a problem for Wes; at one point the hero and the killer seem to be helping each other smooth over potential plot holes by discussing how the latter was able to pull everything off ("I heard shots so I hid outside while you went to find Leah!" "But I went to get you a glass of water and gave you time to stab Jerome and come back down...").
Again - not a masterpiece. But not something that deserves to be written off, either. If you were one of the folks that saw it in theaters (there weren't many of you) and haven't seen it since, the DVD makes a second chance viewing enticing enough - 20 minutes of deleted scenes (some seem to be from alternate versions of the movie, but at least one helps clarify a few murky plot points either way) and an alternate opening and ending which help explain the film's original title (25/8) are certainly worth a look. The commentary with Craven and a few of the actors can be frustrating as the movie itself though; he'll be making a point or addressing a concept that didn't quite land when one of them will interrupt with a joke about their hair or something (he did this on Scream 4 as well, and like that one, actors ditch before it's over, making me wonder why they didn't just split the tracks). But there's enough there to warrant a listen if you've been as intrigued by the film as I was - the reshoots are mentioned often, and you'll get a few nuggets about what changed over the year or so that this film was being reworked.
Basically; I understand why folks have hated on the film, but there's more to it than the trailer or even a synopsis might let on, and if you can get past this jarringly paced and alienating first half hour or so, you will be rewarded with one of the most unusual modern slashers we've seen in quite some time. It's never perfect, but it's interesting and even a bit daring (I'm sure someone tried to force Wes to change up the film's odd structure - the entire second half of the film is a real time stream of revelations and deaths in a single home; someone could conceivably stage the film as a play), and nowhere near deserving of the scorn its gotten from horror fans and critics alike over the past three years. Universal's decision to post-convert it into 3D did it no favors; thankfully that version has been basically lost - it only received a 2D release on disc (at least here in the US; Germany has been post-converting tons of horror movies - even independent ones - so I'm sure they have it in 3D over there). But in a way it was kind of perfect for this particular movie; it just added to the strange appeal and bizarre charm of the whole thing. There wasn't a single moment in the entire film that you could say "Oh, I can see why they would make this 3D" (again, the entire second half is just people talking in a house, basically). Add in the nutty end credits - which include storyboards of a few scenes that didn't make it into the film - and you have an experience that is truly unique. Generic? I WISH we were inundated with movies like I could describe as "My Soul To Take-esque".
*It's an oft-missed plot point in Shocker that Peter Berg's hero character was Pinker's son. But why listen to any of that movie's dialogue when you can listen to the soundtrack?