Saturday 23 November 2013

4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker (2012)

Directors: Mike Campbell & Todd Johnson
Stars: Katherine Browning, Leah Verrill, Mike Campbell, Ashley Love, Tiffany S Walker and Bianca Lopez

I first saw the film now known as 4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker, as a festival submission when it was still called The Rental. Now, The Rental is hardly a snappy title but at least it doesn't give away, count them, two separate spoilers. What are the odds that this picture is going to feature four girls who are killed by a soul taker? Honestly, this could be the most spoilerific title ever, a full idiotic step beyond John Dies at the End. I remembered The Rental, though not its title, but couldn't remember much more about it than what is given away with the replacement name. It was one of those films that was capable enough to eat up an hour and a half without overt complaints but not memorable enough to stand out from the crowd, something that, by definition, every festival submission really needs to do. It was a bundle of hot chicks, death scenes and plot conveniences, meaning that it'll work well enough in the wild but be forgotten in no time unless a cast member suddenly makes it huge. None have yet.

At least the prologue is clichéd enough to dissuade more discerning viewers from proceeding further. It is so quintessentially clichéd that for a while I was honestly waiting for someone to shout, 'Cut!' and let us in on the secret that this is a horror movie within a horror movie. Unfortunately it doesn't; it keeps on going until we realise that we're seeing a template for the next ninety minutes. I literally can't spoil this picture, as there is nothing here that isn't a given from the new title and the first five minutes in which Becky is chased slowly around a small house by Roger Corman in an Emperor Palpatine costume. She's in full on victim mode, so far into hysterics that she's obviously going to be killed off quickly. He's calm and confident, issuing unending clichés. 'You leave me no choice, Becky,' he warns her, while trying to keep a straight face. 'I can do this all night, he mutters, 'but I prefer not to.' Given that he's played by Mike Campbell, one of the two directors, he doesn't have a choice. 'Give me your soul,' he whispers.

After the title, we discover that he's Devlin Chito and he's the landlord who is about to let the very same house to a quartet of stereotypical giggling young ladies. Well, four stereotypical giggling young ladies who are clearly a little older than they should be but still look good. Two are polar opposites: Lily is as pure and virginal as her flowery name would suggest, while Bianca is happy to bed anything with a penis. In fact, she even has her very own silent hunk to haul in her stuff. That leaves Lori and Pam, who are a lesbian couple; Lori is the blonde, Pam the brunette. Lily is the inevitable link between the four, as Lori's sister and Bianca's schoolfriend. I can buy the former but not the latter. Lily and Lori could easily be sisters who reacted differently to heavily disapproving parents, but Lily and Bianca clearly aren't the same age. The only things they agree on are that they love the house and that Devlin is a creepy dude. 'There's something not right about that guy,' says Pam as he vanishes into a puff of smoke outside.
And so the quartet settle into the house and their stereotypes, which only hint at going beyond sexual preferences. Bianca may be a nymphomaniac but she also freely and knowingly uses her body in order to get men to do anything she wants. Lori and Pam are a cute couple, though Pam has a bitchy streak, perhaps because however intolerant Lori's parents are, we discover Pam can't ever go home. They're believable together, playfighting with popcorn and cushions before jumping in the sack, then pissing each other off the next day; Pam flirts outrageously with Bianca, who isn't remotely interested, all to make her own girl jealous. Lily is the counter to all of them, because she isn't just waiting for the right man, she appears to be icked out by the concept of bodily fluids, not just sex but even drinking out of the same glass as someone else. She also prays for the others as they sit down to eat dinner. It's odd that she be the one to show her bits first; Lori and Pam don't even take off their bras to make love.

As if we might get the idea that there's some social value in the story, we're given our first outrageous plot convenience just before half an hour in. These girls are all in college, which isn't much of a surprise, but the first evidence of that is when Lori does her homework on mythology that just happens to be all about Choctaw shadow beings, starting with Nalusa Chito, best known as the soul eater. 'That's pretty weird,' says Lily. 'Mr Chito's last name means soul eater.' Well, 'chito' merely means 'spirit', but let's not quibble. We're here to learn exactly what the landlord, who has been watching the girls throughout on camera, is up to. Apparently the soul eater gets its strength from the souls of evil women, suggesting that in enticing ladies to his house and killing them, Mr Chito is merely recharging his batteries. 'Only the death of the innocent renders it powerless,' Lori reads, so we know where the story is going. Lori's question of, 'What is good and what is evil?' is the only real substance to the story.

The unusual thing is that this question manifests itself mostly through the gay subtext to the story, an obvious thing from the outset but one that builds through the first half. Every powerful moment ties to this aspect of the story. We're given a closed environment with four girls, in which the traditional good girl is the outsider. Her sister is gay but devoted and looking at marriage, if it ever becomes legal, while her best friend is straight but overtly uses sex as a weapon. Lily finds that, while she's all family values in her own mind, she can't help but see Lori as good, if fundamentally flawed according to her morality, but Bianca as bad. It's not who you do it with, it's why you do it, almost a manifesto for gay rights. Also, Lori and Pam's relationship is the only real one here, as Lily doesn't have them and Bianca doesn't have real ones. Yet it's framed just like any relationship, with tender, loving moments and tougher ones that ask questions about sincerity. It just so happens that both halves of the couple are girls.
I hadn't realised after my first viewing quite how well constructed this half of the movie is, but it's surely why it got picked up by Breaking Glass Pictures, whose dominant programming strand is LBGT movies. Certainly it's far more substantial than the horror side of the story, which hardly gets much attention at all. That side is thrust emphatically to the fore at the halfway point, where the film morphs into a weird creature without any real focus. It's a slasher movie, but one confined in a particularly enclosed space where there's no doubt who the particularly invulnerable slasher is and why he's doing what he's doing. It's a suspense flick, but it was clear from the first five minutes where everything was going to end up. It's drama, as tensions arise between characters, but none are remotely believable. It's even a torture porn movie, as Mr Chito turns into a sort of manipulative Jigsaw character, but it's a torture porn movie without any real torture porn. Really, as a horror movie, it succeeds only in eviscerating itself.

The actors do a surprisingly good job, given the material and given that none have racked up much in the way of credits. Katherine Browning is most prominent as Lily and she screams pretty well, but this was only her second feature, after the thoroughly awful The Carpenter: Part 1 - And So They Die. This was the first substantial role for Tiffany Walker, who plays Bianca, but she does fine. Ashley Love does better as Lori, who has a feature and a couple of shorts behind her. Leah Verrill gets lots of opportunity as Pam, with her bitchy attitude, and she lives up to it, though she does go overboard on occasion. And that's about it. The only other substantial role belongs to Mike Campbell, who does well at being creepy but not so well at being anything else. His role consists of standing still and speaking in an infuriatingly calm monotone with a grin on his face that makes him appear less like a Choctaw shadow dweller and more like a paedophile priest. 'Another evil gone,' he recites at one point, but without depth.

4 Dead Girls: The Soul Taker isn't getting good reviews, though Greg Goodsell's at Cinema Head Cheese (currently also the only one at IMDb) is hilarious. Unfortunately it isn't really getting reviews, period. It's being consistently ignored, it seems, which is sad because I want to see what other people thought of it and its rather strange approach to horror. It asks a good fundamental question, that time honoured one about good and evil but, even as it does so, it promptly forgets that it might want to hazard an answer. In the end, we're returned to it as we close in on the end credits, but by that point, we really don't care because we've been led down so many clichéd horror tropes that we forget that there was even a hint of a wink at a possibility of some substance. Really what we're left with is that gay subtext that played out strongly and capably for half a picture. If this had been a drama instead of a horror movie, it might have been a lot more enjoyable. As it is, it's merely watchable at best.

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