Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Soultaker (1990) - MST3K Review


Natalie (Vivian Schilling) just wanted to have some fun at Summerfest with her friends. But things go wrong after Zach (Gregg Thomsen) and his pal Brad (David Fralick) offer drive her home. On the way back, a mysterious man in black (Joe Estevez) steps into the road and causes the teens to crash. Amazingly they are unhurt, but now they start seeing the man in black (not Johnny Cash or the Dread Pirate Roberts) pursuing them. 

It becomes apparent that he is a dangerous killer with supernatural powers. One by one he hunts them down and takes collects their life essence. For Natalie there is no escape, because her destiny is entwined with the desire of a Soultaker.

Movie Review:
You know, Soultaker has a good story inside of it. You've got the angels of death wandering around taking souls. There is a hint of some kind of cosmic order, and an idea about reincarnation. There is a dark mystery to the title character, that hints at something deeper. The film could have been a lost gem, like Trancers.

It's just a shame that these kernels don't develop into a  successful movie. Vivian Schilling not only plays the lead but also dreamed up the story and wrote the script. She should have picked one roll over the other. The script needed another couple drafts by a writer with a clear idea of constructing a thrilling story.

But that leads to another question, what type of movie is this: straight horror or  supernatural thriller. If this was a horror film, then the Soultaker concept needed some streamlining. Something simple like the teens souls are jarred from their bodies and the Soultaker is coming for them. Now you have a prototype for Final Destination. If they were going for more of a supernatural thriller, more depth was required for the concept of the afterlife, the duties of the Soultaker, and the properties that a free soul possesses. Instead the script never has any fixed rules, and plays fast and loose to make things work. Because there are no rules, we don't feel any threat to any of the characters and any sense of danger is lost.

The acting is uneven. Schilling is pretty good as Natalie, keeping things fairly realistic for a character in that situation. Fralick provides a solid streak of sociopath for the drug dealing friend, Brad. Estevez is very good as the Soultaker. He is pretty menacing as he hunts down the wayward teens. But more impressive are later scenes where he adds a sense of lonliness to the character as he tries desperately to to convince Natalie to stay with him. Just like he did in his small part in Werewolf, Estevez takes the role and runs with it.

Our leading man, Thomsen is not very convincing. At the beginning of the film when he's hanging out with his friends and interacting with Natalie, he seems to be playing himself. But when he has to slip into serious protector mode, the effect is comical. Rounding out the cast is Robert Z'Dar as the lead Angel of Death. Z'Dar appeared in all kinds of straight to video horror, action and sci-fi flicks since the '80s and '90s. His features are perfect for an intimidating character. Unfortunately the film tries to make him mysterious by electronically altering his voice. Combined with his somber expression the effect is really goofy. Z'Dar made another appearance on MST3K in Future War.

Maybe the real deal breaker is the botched climax. The finale consists of the Soultaker chasing the remaining souls through a hospital. Because there are no clear rules for the souls or the Soultaker the audience has no clue what is on the line. What is the deal with the midnight deadline? How come souls have to open doors and can be affected by gravity? None of this is explored, we just get to watch our cast play hide and seek in a hospital. 

Still there is an ambitious film at the heart of Soultaker, and I kinda feel bad for coming down so hard on it. With a little more work on the script, this could have been a fun and memorable flick. Luckily there is plenty of great stuff for Mike the bots to delve into.

Episode Review:
Season Ten of Mystery Science Theater 3000 starts with a bang. They've got a solid sci-fi flick to mock and all kinds of special guests and antics in the host segments. I think the crew at Best Brains knew this would be the final season of the show and decided to do something a little special for this episode.

Things start off with a brand new opening credit song and title sequence. Now Castle Forrester is mentioned and you get some scenes of  Gorgo smashing up a building. This is a nice callback to the Comedy Central years that featured Joel and the bots watching a Godzilla film during the opening titles.

The host segments begin with Crow and Tom participating in a wet T-shirt contest. It's not what you think. Then the Satellite of Love begins to seriously malfunction. Mike and the bots ask Pearl for help, but she doesn't care and sends them the movie. At the next break a very annoyed Gypsy tells Mike that a mysterious ship is following them. Mike tries to take command but is less effectual than Captain Cameron from Star Trek: Generations. The next break starts with the Satellite hurtling out of control and our heroes in mortal peril. Unfortunately Pearl can't help because a Soultaker has appeared in the castle and is after Bobo's soul! Pearl takes matters into her hands and the Soultaker is revealed to be TV's Frank from the Comedy Central years! Frank and Pearl immediately hit it off and reminisce about old times (they were buddies in the Comedy Central years and delighted in mocking Dr. Forrester). Meanwhile, the mysterious ship saves Mike and the Bots.

In the next break the mysterious ship docs alongside them and it turns out that they are rescued by Joel Robinson (the original host of Mystery Science Theater 3000)! Joel and the bots reunite (with Joel even mentioning that Crow sounds kinda funny) and he tells them about his life after escaping from the Satellite. In the final segment Joel has fixed the Satellite and tells Mike and the bots that he can't take them back to earth. He feels that his years on the Satellite "made a man out of him" and that if Mike and bots stick it out, it might work for them too. Rejuvenated with that desire, Mike and the bots swear to carry on. Back on earth, Frank explains that he needs a soul. Bobo volunteers and then Frank and Bobo play a fun game of ring toss with Bobo's soul. Those guys!

As for the movie, Soultaker provides a ton of riffing fodder. The dated low budget special effects and silly looking props appear all over the place. Questionable acting combined with ludicrous  dialogue for some hilarious scenes. But mostly it's the late 80's vibe the whole movie has. Sure, it was released in 1990, but the whole look screams 1988. And as I've mentioned, cheesy '80s sci-fi make for some of my favorite episodes for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

In an odd twist of fate, this is one of those rare occurrences where the movie is almost interesting enough to distract from the riffing. The Soultaker concept is pretty neat and makes for some possible thrills. But in this case, it helps the show cook along at a good pace. The only real moment of slog occurs at the end when even Mike and bots are at loss with the endless hospital chase scenes.

It's a minor hiccup really, because there is so much to enjoy. The riffing tackles the oh so 80's Summerfest where Natalie and Brad meet cute. The visual effects of Soultaking provide plenty of comments. Mike and bots marvel at the oddity of Robert Z'Dar's face, wondering if he is storing nuts in his huge cheeks. They even provide extensive commentary when one character dares to imply that Led Zeppelin may be wrong. "What are you saying man? That Sabbath is wrong too?"

My favorite sequence of episode is when Natalie decides to take a shower. The bots get all excited the potential nudity. But then Crow gets something in his eye. He runs from the theater trying to find some eye wash. Meanwhile Mike and Tom tell him he's not missing anything at all - while the whole shower scene plays out. Poor Crow. The interplay between Crow and the guys is hilarious and Tom and Mike keep right on riffing the whole time. Great stuff.

In a way Soultaker is a great one for long time fans of the show. The special appearances by Joel and Frank always bring a smile to my face, and provide some good laughs too. Most dedicated fans rate this as a favorite based on the host segments alone. I find the riffing to be above average but not quite top notch.

I give this episode 4 soul rings out of 5.

This episode is available in the Mystery Science Theater Volume XIV.


  1. Movies that could-have/should-have been better would make a long list. Here is one I'd put on it: Godzilla (1998). An expensive reboot set in NYC instead of Tokyo and with post-Jurassic Park CGI, this could have been a solid monster movie. Instead, the shoestring Cloverfield was better.

  2. Oh wow the late '90s "Godzilla" was a bit of a mess wasn't it? I remember the huge marketing machine going into overdrive on this one. Godzilla everything all over the place. I worked at a promotional company at the time and calling cards are their big item. They were working overtime to come up with these great Godzilla themed calling cards - but could not use any images from the film, because the design of Godzilla was secret. Then the movie ended up being pretty lame, word of mouth killed it and lots of people got stuck with merchandise no one wanted. Same thing happened with all the Jar Jar Binks toys and figures next year with "Phantom Menace". Really the best thing about "Godzilla" was the exciting musical score by David Arnold. Not one of his best, but its still a lot of fun. These days he's known for his excellent work on the James Bond Series.

    I've never seen the movie all in one sitting. I've caught pieces here and there. When they said "from the creators" of "Independence Day" they lost me. At the time I really hated "Independence Day" and that combined with the Taco Bell dog saying "Here leezard, leeezard, leeezard" just drove me away.