The netherworld of displaced souls and spooks on a mission has been one of this movie season's most frequented playgrounds. There was the romantic poltergeisting of "Ghosts," the weird-science hauntings of "Flatliners" and the mushy apparitionings of "Always."
Major releases with flashy special effects and huge stars. But even the little guys like to visit limbo, as shown by "SoulTaker" (opening Friday, UA City Center, Orange) a tiny-budgeted ($250,000) sci-fi "thriller" starring Joe Estevez as a purgatory goon who snatches spirits for a living.
OK, here's the qualifier: AIP Studios obviously didn't have much money to work with, so expecting a lot is probably unfair. No name actors, no interesting locales and no technical legerdemain. This is movie-Lite, with only a mineral trace of nutrients.
On the other hand, there are examples of low-cost horror projects that were wonderful, or at least amusing. Probably the best example is "Night of the Living Dead," filmed in 1968 for about $100,000 and showing that a meager bank account doesn't necessarily mean a movie can't be fun and scary.
The problem is that "SoulTaker" isn't much fun. And the eeriest thing about it is how much Estevez--decked out in darkened eyes, a black raincoat and silver-tipped cowboy boots--looks and sounds like his brother, Martin Sheen. Really, the resemblance is chilling. Once that tingle subsides, there's the plot to deal with.
The screenplay, written by Vivian Schilling (she also portrays leading lady Natalie), follows a carload of teen-agers being pursued by Estevez after they crash during a drunken joy ride. The accident "displaces" their spirits, and they're stuck in kind of a purgatory, which looks just like the physical world except nobody can see them.
As far as I could tell, Estevez is suppose to send them to hell, heaven or wherever, but the kids don't want to go. Who would argue with them? This "angel of death" is one mean-looking dude, with no fashion sense and a glare that could boil water. He also has an unbecoming habit of choking people until they die.
Anyway, it finally comes down to Natalie and her hunk, Zach (Gregg Thomsen), as they try to reunite with their comatose bodies in the local hospital.
In an inexplicable reincarnation subplot, Estevez was apparently married to Natalie during the Civil War but murdered her because she was sleeping with another guy. He gets a little moony-eyed over Natalie, especially when she takes off her clothes to bathe. Dates must be hard to find in limbo.
What deadens "SoulTaker" more than anything is its unrelieved mundaneness. Lack of money clearly kept director Michael Rissi from achieving a striking visual style, but there's a feeling of being cheated when the spiritual plane the kids have to romp through looks just like the real world. Besides, the action is plodding and without imaginative curlicues to take it beyond adventure picture cliches.
A blast of humor could have helped--just look what camp did for "Night of the Living Dead." But everybody, including the actors, who too often seem like their scenes were shot in one take, play it with resolute seriousness. To be sure, there is a smattering of unintentionally funny moments--at one point, the camera takes on a dog's-eye-view!--but not enough to rejuvenate "SoulTaker" through kitsch.