A horror movie without horror, a spook pic without spookiness and a metaphysical drama without the slightest spiritual tug, “Soul Survivors” virtually dwindles away on the screen. By the time it’s over — 84 minutes of everyone’s wasted time — it only proves the argument that too much Roger Corman is not a good thing. Corman alum Steve Carpenter has returned to his roots as a writer-director of terror-on-campus pics, but they are shallow roots indeed. As laughably silly as producer Neal Moritz’s other current pic, “The Glass House,” this obvious rip-off of “Jacob’s Ladder” will rapidly exit theaters and cower somewhere in the dark corners of ancillary outposts.
Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller, looking like Gwyneth Paltrow’s younger sister) packs up to go to Middleton College, and she’s lucky — or unlucky — to have both current beau Sean (Casey Affleck) and ex-b.f. Matt (Wes Bentley) help her load up. Matt still pines for Cassie, yet oddly plays kissy-face with Cassie’s best pal and slightly wild girl Annabel (Eliza Dushku). The plan is to drop Cassie off at Middleton, before going on to their freshman destination of Harvard, but it seems the parties in this leafy New England town are just too enticing, and they end up at a rave scene held in an abandoned church where entrants aren’t just stamped — they’re branded.
After a run-in with weird guys with ugly mugs or masks or both (Ken Moreno and Carl Paoli), Cassie retreats outside. Without much motivation, Matt actually makes Cassie kiss him “one last time” in full view of Sean. Naturally, it’s suddenly raining monsoon-style and a distraught Cassie is behind the wheel, so a horrendous collision with a car from the rave (containing the weird guys and a weirder woman) is soon to follow. Cassie, along with Matt and Annabel, appear to survive, but Sean dies in the crash.
As the first semester rumbles along, Cassie can’t get Sean out of her head. Being haunted by Sean’s voice or face is one thing; having visions of blood oozing out of her nose and desk during a midterm or bloody chunks exploding out of her shower drain is another. Annabel, between stints at parties and hanging out with clairvoyant Raven (Angela Featherstone), voices concern for Cassie, but it’s Matt who really takes her under his wing, even though it looks like he’s trying to exploit Cassie’s emotional state for his own carnal agenda.
Bentley has the good actor’s judgment that, when stuck in a bad movie, play it straight, hold your head up, get through this thing. But why is he within a mile of this production? This is a dues-paying movie for young thesps working for a better day, like the earnest Sagemiller or the bland Affleck, not for someone who blew the lights out in “American Beauty.”
Cassie’s distress devolves so quickly into a repetitious cycle of the oldest horror tricks in the book that it’s almost breathtaking: It is fair to wonder, for example, how many times she can walk the streets at night alone and not be chased by a masked man. There’s so obviously a twist behind the crude silliness — embodied by Luke Wilson as a beatific, clearly unreal Catholic priest symbolically named Father Jude — that, once the twist comes, it feels more like a way out of the movie than an insight into Cassie’s inner turmoil.