[5 April 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Good vs. Evil. God vs. The Devil. Man vs. The Unexplainable and the Unknowable. Since civilization began, thinkers have tried to resolve such esoteric conflicts with everything from science to superstition, almost always with little or no success. Art, it seems can find a quick and convenient way to measure out fractions of faith and further progress, but when done poorly, the problems inherent shine through. Such is the case with the weird, scattered 6 Souls. Originally entitled Shelter, this aging offering (it’s been on the shelf since 2010) has a fine cast (Julianne Moore, Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and excellent performances (especially from the latter). But it suffers from a swing in storytelling that moves awkwardly between mystery and mumbo jumbo to the point where, by the end, you’re not sure why you settled in for such cockamamie claptrap.
Moore is Dr. Cara Harding, a recently widowed psychiatrist who testifies at trials over the misconceptions in multiple personality disorders (read: she thinks they’re a load of hooey). Her equally educated father (Jeffrey DeMunn) disagrees, and he has a new patient to prove it. Calling himself “David” (Rhys Meyers), our wheelchair bound man seems meek and mild. One instructional phone call later, and suddenly we see “Adam,” a brash and aggressive guy who can talk the talk - and walk the walk. This ‘person’ is not handicapped. At first, Cara thinks it’s a joke, an elaborate ruse played on her by her disagreeable dad. But as she digs deeper, she learns some confusing facts. There may be “others” inside this man. All of his personalities seem to be victims of past crime, and he has intimate knowledge of things only these now dead individuals would have.
So far, so good. 6 Souls sets us up for a potentially engaging dig through one psycho’s shapeshifting abilities. Though his outward appearance never changes, Adam can apparently take on the internal characteristics of those he channels (a fused spine, colorblindness). Better still, he is apparently in tune with a series of slaughtered individuals, the better to give the movie some unseen killer heft. Though Moore seems more concerned with highlighting her various bad hair days than delivering a definitive character, she’s still quite compelling, while Rhys Meyer’s nails it, that is, when he’s not going over the top. As a result, we have the elements for a ripe Silence of the Lambs rip-off, a chance to watch two skilled actors walk us through a creepy and suspenseful crime thriller.
And then, 6 Souls goes South. Way south. Like deep into the bowels of Hell South. You see, Adam is not really Adam. Or David. Or Wesley. Or any number of personalities he takes on over the course of the film. No, he’s something stupider - much stupider. Without spoiling it here, it has something to do with the post World War I influenza epidemic, a bunch of befuddled mountain folk, and the slick religious charlatan who swooped into town promising salvation, but ended up only providing funeral fodder. There’s revenge involved, a crazy old coot named “The Granny” and a cherubic child with a mane of white hair who functions as the aforementioned crone’s ‘eyes.’ Oh, and did we mention there’s a weird rash the people get, a bloody and enflamed sore shaped like a heretical cross?
Oh brother indeed. Had it stayed true to its “is he crazy or is he sane” beginnings, had directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein (of the far better Swedish film Storm) dumped the entire last act of this drivel to drive home the whole doctor vs. the demented theme, we’d have something serviceable. Not necessarily better, but a whole lot more believable than a 100 year old mountain witch sucking the souls out of people (and not for the reasons you think). Writer Michael Cooney, who concocted a much better scary movie with his script for Identity (though he also tackled the awful Jack Frost films, FYI), seems lost in a newfound belief in religion. The storyline constantly challenges Cara’s complicated faith, a surreal amalgamation of atheism (she is mad at God for taking her husband away) and borderline Bible thumping. Of course, it comes into play at the end.
Then there is the whole Adam/David ideal. When we learn who this guy really is - or who he may be - the whole multiple personality thing makes no sense. After all, wouldn’t one of them be the bad guy who started this all? Also, why these individuals? Why these souls? If it was part of some heritage vendetta, someone getting back at the families who figured in his demise, the story doesn’t say. Instead, we start off with a frail, wheelchair bound man, and end up with a younger version of Rev. Henry Kane. Granted, our star can really inhabit these differing individuals, making sure we see each one as separate. But the movie cheats too much, never explaining why a phone call shifts between the various personalities and types.
Still, there is a nice sense of dread here, a level of suspense that slowly dissipates as the movie meanders toward the exhausting end of its one hour and forty five minute run time. It’s too long, too laid back in dealing with Cara and her detective work to keep up a full head of horror steam. Instead, like many movies made and then abandoned, 6 Souls shows why it was unreleased for so long. It’s not because of the acting or the actors. It’s not because of the premise or how these otherwise interesting foreign filmmakers handle it. It’s not even in the denouement, which could have been handled in a much more menacing manner. No, the real problem here is that we have two divergent concepts constantly battling each other for fright night significance - and at the end of such a long and arduous struggle, there’s no real passion or payoff. Just exhaustion.