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Dustin's Review
Soul Survivors (2001)
3 Stars

Directed by Steve Carpenter
Cast: Melissa Sagemiller, Wes Bentley, Eliza Dushku, Casey Affleck, Luke Wilson, Angela Featherstone
2001 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for terror/violence, sexual situations, and substance abuse).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 8, 2001.

If you think you've seen the theatrical trailers for "Soul Survivors" for what seems like over a year now, you'd be right. Made in the summer of 1999, it has sat on the shelf ever since, with the production company, Artisan Entertainment, taking the film from writer-director Steve Carpenter and recutting it to obtain a PG-13 rating. All signs so far have pointed to disaster for "Soul Survivors," but somehow, its problematic past fails to shine through in the finished product. Marvelously constructed and rather freaky, the movie, somewhat misleadingly billed as "From the producer of 'I Know What You Did Last Summer' and 'Urban Legend'," is a psychological thriller that works far more often than not.

Set during a particularly luscious autumn in the small, middle-of-America town of Middleton, four friends are spending one last night together before Sean (Casey Affleck) goes off to college. Abandoning a lame fraternity party to hang out at an abandoned church-set goth club that party-girl Annabel (Eliza Dushku) suggests, they soon get into a heated argument when Sean catches girlfriend Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) kiss ex-boyfriend Matt (Wes Bentley). While traveling home, they are involved in a freak car accident that leaves one of them, Sean, dead. Several weeks after the accident, Cassie has returned to college in an attempt to get her life back together, but her plans of normalcy are hindered with an undeniable feeling of guilt hanging over her head (she was the one driving that fateful night). Worse yet, she is haunted by ghastly visions and even suspects that Sean might not be dead, after all.

In the vein of 1990's "Jacob's Ladder" and 1997's "Lost Highway," "Soul Survivors" is a twist-laden, nightmarish horror-drama where the line between reality and imagination hangs by a thread. For most viewers paying attention, what is really going on should become apparent before it is indefinitely revealed at the end, but that admitted predictability allows the viewer to watch and acknowledge all of the ingeniously construed hints that writer-director Carpenter offers. The film is particularly well-written for the genre, and it is obvious how meticulously Carpenter outlined the plot developments.

The cast is also a step above the norm, as the performers are rising stars who also happen to have been chosen because of their gifted acting abilities. Melissa Sagemiller (2001's "Get Over It") sure-footedly handles her first lead role, making Cassie a sympathetic young woman who is grappling with her own very real demons. Supporting her are Eliza Dushku (2000's "Bring It On"), always arresting to watch, as Annabel; the brooding Wes Bentley (1999's "American Beauty"), as Matt; Casey Affleck (2000's "Drowning Mona"), finally getting a chance to overcome the shadow of big brother Ben, as the ill-fated Sean; and Luke Wilson (2001's "Legally Blonde"), as an understanding priest whom Cassie turns to for help.

The gorgeous setting, moodily photographed by Fred Murphy (1999's "Stir of Echoes"), is every bit as much a character in the picture as its human counterparts. Set during the early months of the fall season, the chilly atmosphere, dying trees, and yellow leaves adorn every shot, signaling the detail and high production values that went into the look of the film. The effectively offbeat music score, by Daniel Licht (1999's "Splendor"), is edgy and suspenseful enough to aid in the fast pacing of the story.

Knowing that "Soul Survivors" was edited down from an R-rating to a PG-13, the movie fortunately never feels as if its vision has been compromised in any way, and the more "kid-friendly" rating does not lessen the impact of the plot and characters. Save for a final scene that is a little too maudlin for its own good, "Soul Survivors" is never less than an intriguing entertainment. If most thrillers were as original and well-made as this one, we'd all be very lucky.

©2001 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman