Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Soul Survivors (2001)
Studio Line: Artisan - The World of the Dead and the World of the Living…are About to Collide.

College freshman Cassandra "Cassie" (Melissa Sagemiller) steps into a nightmare of otherworldly visitations after surviving a devastating car accident. Haunted by a grim reaper of a far different kind, her only hope is to cling to chance encounters with her lost love Sean (Casey Affleck) and the aid of a mysterious young priest named Father Jude (Luke Wilson). It is the spirit of Sean, her soul mate, who guides her to love, but it is her friends Matt (Wes Bentley), Annabel (Eliza Dushku) and Annabel’s morose friend Raven (Angela Featherstone) who try to draw her to the dark side.

Director: Stephen Carpenter
Cast: Casey Affleck, Melissa Sagemiller, Wes Bentley, Eliza Dushku, Angela Featherstone, Luke Wilson
DVD: Widescreen 1.77:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Dolby Surround 2.0; subtitles Spanish; closed-captioned; single-sided, dual-layered; 28 chapters; rated R; 85 min.; $24.98; street date 2/26/02.
Supplements: Scene Select Commentary by Actress Melissa Sagemiller; Deleted Scenes; “Behind the Deathmask: The Making of Soul Survivors”; “Living Dangerously: The Art of Harvey Danger”; Animated Storyboards; Theatrical Trailers; Sneak Peek Trailer Gallery; Cast and Crew; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/C+/C

You know what’s one of the most disturbing aspects of growing old? Seeing child actresses develop into babes. Oh, this was fine when they were young and I was as well; for example, there wasn’t a big difference between my then-19-year-old self and then-15-year-old Jennifer Connelly when I first saw her in 1986’s Labyrinth.

Many others make me feel old. We have Natalie Portman, a scrawny 13-year-old in 1994’s Leon: The Professional who blossomed into a definite babe. From the same year, we got Eliza Dushku in True Lies. Also 13 at the time, she’s turned out to be an incredible beauty who now clocks in at the ripe old age of 21.

Man - seeing these girls mature makes me feel old and like a perv. Well, if that’s the way it is, then so be it. If I’m wrong for lusting after Dushku, I don’t wanna be right!

Unfortunately, to get my Dushku fix, I have to endure some genuinely crummy flicks. While 2000’s Bring It On provided a surprisingly fun experience, 2001’s Soul Survivors just stunk up the joint. I expected little of it and got even less in return.

Survivors may violate a lot of expectations, mainly due to the film’s marketing. The cover of the DVD follows the standard Scream style imagery, with medium shots of the actors all lined up in a row. Though she’s not actually the lead character, a seriously cleavage-revealing Dushku stands at the front of the pile. Poor Melissa Sagemiller plays the lead character, but she’s shoved way to the back of this illustration!

Based on the marketing, you probably will anticipate a slasher flick from Survivors, especially since the cover mentions that it comes from the producers of I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend. However, the truth is very different. Note that this DVD release of Soul Survivors offers the “Killer Cut” of the film. Hyped as “the version you weren’t allowed to see on the big screen”, the case also relates that it includes “more blood! more sex! more terror than the theatrical release”. Since I never saw the flick theatrically, I can’t give any first-person comparisons. The original version was rated “PG-13” as opposed to this one’s “R”, but running time differences are minor; the 85-minute “Killer Cut” only lasts a minute longer than the 84-minute theatrical edition.

Frankly, it seemed as though this version still doesn’t do much to rate an “R”. There’s a brief flash of breasts - not Dushku’s, unfortunately - and a little blood, but there’s not much graphic on parade here. As I perused the web, I found lots of folks who were bitterly upset that the film had been cut to get a “PG-13”. If anyone anticipates a vastly improved effort due to the allegedly more graphic material, they’ll likely leave disappointed, as there’s nothing very interesting on display here.

That goes for the story as well. After a brief section in which we see the murder of a college coed by some spooky dudes, Survivors jumps a year and follows the antics of some youngsters about to start college. Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) dates Sean (Casey Affleck) and used to go out with Matt (Wes Bentley) who now has hooked up with Annie (Dushku), Cass’ longtime best pal. Before they separate to leave for school, they go to a wild party, and Matt declares that he still has strong feelings for Cass.

Against her better judgment, Cass agrees to his request for a goodbye kiss, and inevitably, Sean catches them in the act. Understandably, this causes problems, and as Cass drives the four home, they argue. This distracts her and she crashes into a car whose driver - apparently one of those responsible for the earlier murder - went out of the way to block the road.

After this, we see that Sean didn’t survive the accident, but the other three seemingly emerged fairly unscathed, at least in regard to their physical health. Cass remains emotionally upset although the others try to make her feel better. The rest of the movie follows her state of mind as she appears to become paranoid, delusional, and obsessed with Sean, whose ghost haunts her.

Or something like that. Frankly, Survivors presents one of the most muddled stories put onto film. Clearly influenced to a heavy degree by 1962’s Carnival of Souls - with more than a dash of The Sixth Sense tossed in for good measure - we quickly figure that something odd’s at play here. I’m not going to delve into the details because a) I don’t want to spoil any potential surprises, and b) the whole thing makes no sense anyway.

Survivors piles twist upon twist to the point where I don’t think even the filmmakers know what any of it means. The tale lacks even basic coherence and never seems very sure where it wants to go. Unexpected surprises are all well and good; God knows they worked for Sixth Sense. However, Survivor consists of virtually nothing other than twists; the story goes off toward so many dead ends that the whole thing falls flat.

The acting doesn’t help. As Cass, Sagemiller occupies screentime through most of the flick; she’s rarely not a participant. I think she was hired mainly due to her strong resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow, for she creates a bland and awkward screen presence otherwise. Perhaps to balance Sagemiller’s lack of personality, Dushku emotes heavily and presents a very over the top character. Well, at least she flashes a lot of cleavage.

Perhaps the biggest stretch of reality stems from the fact that Matt bags sexy Annie but still pines for plain Jane Cass. I know the world has an obsession with blondes, but this is ridiculous - anyone who’d pass up on Dushku to go after Sagemiller needs psychological help. Granted, since Bentley plays the role like a more demented variation on the quirky loner he portrayed in American Beauty, mental illness may not be out of the question for the character.

Soul Survivors presents a supernatural thriller with absolutely no thrills. It aspires to the level of mysterious pieces like The Sixth Sense but never remotely approaches that flick’s level of foreboding or spookiness. Instead, it’s an incoherent and shrill piece that left me bored.

The DVD:

Soul Survivors appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.77:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Most of the film looked very good, with only a few problems to detract from it.

Sharpness seemed consistently solid. From start to finish, the movie maintained a nicely crisp and detailed picture that appeared quite satisfying. Virtually no instances of softness marred the presentation, and I also witnessed no signs of jagged edges or moiré effects. However, some distinct edge enhancement showed up on occasion; this never became severe, but it did provide a moderate distraction at times. In regard to print flaws, I saw a speckle here or there but not anything significant.

Colors looked somewhat subdued due to the film’s moody design, but they came across as nicely rich and vivid nonetheless. The hues always looked clear and solid, without any signs of bleeding, noise, or other issues. Black levels were also deep and dense, while shadow detail came across as appropriately heavy but not overly thick. This was a dark film by design, and the DVD replicated the image quite well; without the edge enhancement, Soul Survivors would have entered “A” territory.

Less satisfying was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Most of the problems related to the somewhat lazy soundfield. The mix featured a general emphasis toward the front, where the majority of the music and effects resided. Surround usage tended toward general reinforcement of the effects and score; some unique audio appeared from the rear on occasion, but not often. That was fine with me; not every movie needs an active surround presence to work.

However, I disliked the awkward way in which the elements were integrated. The track often seemed awfully “speaker-specific”, and the pieces didn’t blend together very neatly. Actually, the music meshed nicely, as those parts created a good sense of envelopment. But the effects detracted from the presentation; they consistently came across as detached.

Audio quality was good for the most part, though speech caused some modest concerns. Most of the dialogue seemed reasonably distinct, but on more than a few occasions, I found the lines to sound somewhat muddy, and I occasionally had trouble understanding what the actors said. Effects appeared clean and distinct, and they showed good range, while music seemed quite bright and lively for the most part. Clearly the score was the highlight of the track, as it offered nice depth and vividness. Bass response was good but unexceptional across the board. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Soul Survivors had some moments, but it seemed pretty average.

Based on the specs, one might expect a wealth of extras on Soul Survivors. Unfortunately, though the disc includes a number of different features, few seem very useful. This starts as soon as you plop the disc in your player. You’re greeted with a menu screen that lists “Reality”, “Dream” and “Nightmare”. Don’t be too confused; it’s just a way to offer you a choice of main menu presentation.

As for the array of special features, we begin with a scene select commentary by Melissa Sagemiller. There’s a very good reason this is called a “scene select” track; Sagemiller only speaks during seven segments. These are accessible from the commentary menu, so thankfully we don’t have to sit through the whole movie to hear her infrequent remarks.

Each section lasts between 15 seconds and four minutes, 29 seconds. That means Sagemiller’s chat fills exactly 18 minutes and 46 seconds. Wow - I know it’s a short movie, but that’s a really abbreviated commentary! This would be more forgivable if she said much of interest, but unfortunately, Sagemiller largely just relates plot points. She adds some decent notes about locations and what it was like to shoot the flick, but these are pretty minor. Overall, this was a bland commentary that added little to the package.

Ditto that sentiment for the disc’s Deleted Scenes. We find three of these: “Funeral for a Friend”, “The Telephone Call” and “Saying Good-bye”. They last between 68 seconds and four minutes, seven seconds for a total of eight minutes and two seconds of footage. None of the segments provides much of use; all were cut for good reason.

Next we find the worst feature on the DVD: a “documentary” called Behind the Deathmask: The Making of Soul Survivors. This four minute and 15 second featurette absolutely defines the phrase “glorified trailer”. We watch the main actors - Sagemiller, Affleck, Dushku, Bentley and Luke Wilson - as they tell us about their characters and the movie’s story. And that’s it. We see some brief glimpses of shots from the set, but overall this is a boring piece that exists totally for promotional reasons; it tells us nothing about the making of the film.

It’s no more informative, but Living Dangerously: The Art of Harvey Danger is much more entertaining. The band’s song “Authenticity” appears in the film, and this 10-minute and 15-second “documentary“ by alleged high school sophomore Michael Raftery covers their beef with Artisan: they contend that Soul Survivors was their idea and the studio stole it. Boys - let them have it - you don’t want it! The program shows them as they start to create their own film.

It’s silly and somewhat pointless, but it’s still somewhat fun. It’s like an amateur Spinal Tap, to a degree, as the band take on pompous and inflated attitudes. The show seems hit or miss, but we get some good lines, like when bandmember Jeff Lin states that he thinks the world’s finally ready for an Asian martial artist. Don’t expect a laugh riot, but “Dangerously” has some entertaining moments.

After this we find a selection of animated storyboards. These present three different scenes: “The Accident”, “Library Rendezvous”, and “Missing Persons”. Essentially, they present filmed versions of the art accompanied by the corresponding audio from the flick; we see the final footage after those elements end. The snippets last between 41 seconds and three minutes, 10 seconds for a total of almost six minutes of material. These will be interesting for storyboard fans, but they did little for me.

The remainder of the extras cover some basic features. We get two theatrical trailers for Survivors itself as well as a Sneak Peek Trailer Gallery. The latter contains ads for fellow Artisan flicks Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, The Ninth Gate, Stir of Echoes, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, and The Mangler 2.

Lastly, some text materials complete the disc. The Production Notes are actually fairly substantial and detailed; they don’t provide any terrific depth, but they include the most information about the film found on the DVD. We also get basic but decent Cast and Crew entries for producers Stokely Chaffin and Neal H. Moritz, editors Janice Hampton and Todd Ramsay, and actors Sagemiller, Dushku, Bentley, Affleck, Wilson, and Angela Featherstone. Conspicuously absent from this area - and almost all of the others - is director Stephen Carpenter. We hear a little from him in the Production Notes, but that’s it; otherwise he’s totally invisible here. Very odd!

I wouldn’t remotely classify Soul Survivors as the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely a clunker. Virtually everything about it flops, as it fails to maintain any form of suspense or excitement. Frankly, the most fun I had while I watched it came from remembering the Stones’ song of almost the same name (off of Exile On Main Street, if you care). The DVD provides very good picture quality along with fairly average sound and extras. If you’re desperate for an Eliza Dushku fix, then Soul Survivors might meet your needs, but anyone looking for a compelling suspense flick will feel disappointed.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.3939 Stars Number of Votes: 33
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