Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:25 - Released 9/7/01

Stephen Carpenter's Soul Survivors is an interesting but flawed and somewhat frustrating study on brain injuries and their nightmarish effect on those who sustain them. Carpenter, the writer/director/cinematographer who has produced a handful of such films (my favorite of his titles is The Dorm That Dripped Blood), shows a definite talent for subtle horror, with a suitably creepy trip through the subconscious of its main character. He does a good job keeping us guessing at what's going on, but frequently overdoes the effect, lapsing into such incoherency that we don't know where the red herrings end and the legitimate plot threads begin. His cast, made up of virtually unknown teens, is adequate, especially lead actress Melissa Sagemiller (Get Over It), who supplies a credible performance as a girl who, after suffering a bonk on the head in a car accident, can't decide whether she's crazy or everyone else is. I can't discuss specifics without giving away the "big surprise," but suffice it to say the film has the effect of looking through a one-way mirror (but not knowing which side you're on).

The film starts with Cassie O'Neil (Sagemiller) saying goodbye to her boyfriend Sean (Casey Affleck) as he is about to ship off to college. Though she admits she's going to miss him, she balks at returning his "I love you." Then, after a few minutes inside a rowdy dance club full of suspicious characters, they decide to leave with Cassie's ex-boyfriend Matt (Wes Bentley) and his girlfriend Annabel (Eliza Dushku). Next thing you know, they have a head-on collision and Cassie finds herself being rushed to the operating room of the hospital, not knowing the status of her friends. Then she finds out the worst possible news. Although they were all critically injured in the accident, Sean was the only one who didn't make it.

From this point on, Cassie's world is a confusing mix of dreamlike experiences and startlingly real hallucinations. She tries to begin school with Matt and Annabel, and they try to help her get through the guilt and tragedy of losing Sean, but she continues to spiral into insanity, regularly seeing Sean, who provides comfort, but also being pursued by some of the shady people from the club. Matt, seizing the opportunity to reconcile with her, tries everything he can to calm her down, but her visions continue to plague her. She sees blood in odd places, she gets inexplicable responses from people she talks to, and she keeps seeing Sean, who keeps telling her to "follow him" even though she knows he's dead. Another person who has a comforting effect is the school's priest, Father Jude (Luke Wilson). He tells her to stop by his office any time she wants to talk, but when she tries to find him again, she gets the old "he's been dead 20 years" reply.

This film comes perilously close to being another below-average teen horror flick, but is saved by Sagemiller's honestly nutty performance and director Carpenter's intriguing vision of what is seen by a person with a severe head injury. Although most of the important mysteries are explained in the final reel, there are many minor details left unanswered. The backing performances by the actors playing Cassie's friends are nothing special, although Dushku does give Annabel a sharp sense of attitude. But even with its faults, Soul Survivors is a serviceable entry in the low-budget horror column, and makes the most of its limited resources with stirring imagery and a full-blown performance by its star. ***½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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