Made for TV movies are tricky business. Those Sci-Fi Channel originals are never going to be confused with quality entertainment, that's for sure. Sometimes it seems like they're reveling in the cheapness of their productions. But what about that other genre channel, Chiller? They're producing their own movies, too. Are they of the same non-quality or have they learned from the other channel's mistakes? The initial assumption would be that, yes, their made for TV movies are going to be just as cheesy. So when I first heard Michael Laimo's novel DEAD SOULS was being adapted for Chiller, I wasn't sure if I my reaction should be "Wow, that's awesome" or if it should be, "Dude . . . Good luck." And while I have the novel on which the movie is based, I haven't read it yet, so I can't speak for the faithfulness of the adaptation, only what I thought of the movie as its own entity.
Not bad, actually. I was somewhat surprised, and at times impressed, by the movie.
The story takes places on a rural farm in Maine where, 17 years earlier, Benjamin Conroy killed his wife, teenage son and daughter (and the family dog), before crucifying himself in the family barn. His dying words, as the sheriff walks in and discovers the crime scene, are, "One more," which we assume is in reference to the baby the teenage son had hidden in the basement when the father's murder spree began.
Cut to present day and 18-year-old John Petrie receives a letter in the mail telling him he's just inherited the Conroy family farm in Maine, and if he can come see the place, the lawyer overseeing the estate can get it sold and have the business done with.
John, however, has no idea what's going on. John Petrie's father is dead, but his mother is alive and well--that is, she's alive. She's self-medicating on anti-anxiety meds and keeps a very close watch on her son, but still, their last name is Petrie, not Conroy. When he confronts her with the news of what's happened, Mother Petrie faints. When she wakes up later, she's in the hospital with a doctor telling her 18-year-old son she'll be kept for a few days under observation. Curious John figures this is a good time to take a train to Maine and see what's all this about a family farm he's inherited.
The farm consists of 125 acres, a big house, a barn, a tool shed, and some local punks who try to warn John away from the place. It also comes with its very own squatter, Emma, who has been staying there for a few days. After all, the place was empty, she didn't think anyone would mind. John decides she can stay one more day, but he's signing the papers to sell the place tomorrow.
This is when the weird begins. There are spirits in the Conroy house that have, until John appears, been quiet. But the return of the prodigal son has awakened them and they have unfinished business from a while back.
Going into the story clean, I was able to enjoy the movie as an experience all its own without the shadow of the novel hanging over it, and that was probably for the best in this instance. I mean, it's a made for TV movie; no matter how in depth and grand the events of the novel, the made for TV version is probably not going to be quite so spectacular. Best to just watch the movie and judge it on its own merits. If I don't know how things played out in the book, I can't compare, and I can't be disappointed.
Being a big haunted house fanatic, I think the movie played up the ghostly aspects of the story very well. Director Colin Theys (who was responsible for the abysmal BANSHEE!!!) definitely knows how to frame and execute a shot for maximum creep-effect. And just as the tricks are about to become overplayed, he switches gears and we're safely in act three where the story has developed past the point of needing to rely on shadowy figures and such. I think the narrative began to fall apart and become muddled a little in the third act, but the movies gets points for everything up to that point.
Jesse James (THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT) as John Petrie had a few weak moments in the third act, but he did a passable job up to then, while Magda Apanowicz's (also in THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT) Emma showed just enough aloofness to be mysterious, but still managed to express some connection with John. The question of her background lingers throughout the movie like just another ghost, and it definitely adds another layer to the story and the way the characters interact. A few times we're even forced to question whether she's real or not.
Director Theys and writer John Doolan have come a LONG way from BANSHEE!!!, however--not having read the book yet--I'm not sure who to blame for that clunky act 3. I thought the bones were there for a really decent backstory, but it felt as if everything was being rushed to meet the allotted time for the TV movie. I think--hope anyway--that there was just too much story for a 90 minute movie and maybe another 15-20 minutes would have helped smooth things out a lot.
If nothing else, Theys has given me a small amount of faith that he's got some real talent and, given the right story, can actually accomplish something interesting. Also, it's nice to know I'm not the only horror writer out there who's able to write about more than just zombies. Laimo gives us a familiar backdrop with new and original details and now I'm even more curious to see how these events play out on the page, where time, space, effects budgets and acting skill aren't a factor. I'm hoping the book is even better, but if 90 minutes is all you have to spare, this movie's worth a look, so long as you don't mind getting a little confused in the end.