Steve Niles’ Remains comic-book miniseries is terrific; Michael Laimo’s Dead Souls novel was average even by horror-paperback standards. Both resulting movies were directed by Colin Theys and written by John Doolan (the team behind Chiller’s inaugural telepic, Alien Opponent, not considered here because it’s not based on pre-existing material). Both also reside on a similar plane of meh, despite starting with texts of unequal weight.
The main problem, and it’s especially apparent with something as supernaturally dependent as Dead Souls, is this: Chiller’s movies are too ambitious — not for their own good, but for their own meager budgets. They literally cannot afford to pull off plots this eager-beaver.
Anyway, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it — at least until Chiller ups its funding (unlikely) or scales back to near-microcinema techniques à la Paranormal Activity (more likely).
As for now, the “highly rated” (per the PR materials) Dead Souls begins with a prologue of palpable dread. In the small town of Wellfield, Maine, a preacher murders his wife, daughter, son and dog, and nails them to their own crucifix in the barn. (Attention, PETA: The canine is spared this injustice.) This would-be servant of the Lord then hammers himself up there; only the infant Bryan survives, because Dad couldn’t find him.
It’s the best scene in the movie; everything thereafter pales. Fast-forward 17 years and Bryan, now known as Johnny (Jesse James, Jumper), turns 18, thereby inheriting the 125-acre estate he knows nothing about. Despite being abandoned all this time, the dusty home still has phone service and electricity. Well, mostly abandoned — it houses a cute runaway (Magda Apanowicz, TV’s Caprica) and those titular dead souls (which is wholly redundant, but I get that it sounds cool).
And that’s where the thriftiness of Chiller Pictures bears so little fruit. What could have been compelling ends up silly. James’ performance is as messy as his unkempt hair (at times resembling Raising Arizona‘s H.I. McDunnough); Apanowicz’s character is so hipper-than-thou as to be off-putting; and neither is worth rooting for. By the time B-movie MVP Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw) shows up late in the game, no amount of goodness he brings can save it.