Review: Aj Ahmad’s new horror film ‘My Soul To Keep’ strikes at the heart of the lingering childhood fear inside all of us

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By Nancy Oeswein

mySoultoKeepPoster

Director: Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad Writers: Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad, Justin Hynous
“Shadows are fleeing from the light. My nightmares can begin. Wake me, can’t you hear me calling?  (calling…calling). Out of darkness, they come crawling. Here I am I am lost in your land And I hope you  will be Creeping in my soul. Shadows fall, let me out. Hear my call.” – CryoShell, Creeping in My Soul

Aj Ahmad’s new horror film My Soul To Keep strikes at the heart of the lingering childhood fear inside all of us. He’s created an instant classic horror film for this season that the whole family can enjoy  together. I’m writing this review not so much as a film critic, but as an everyday movie-goer, transported by a story that is at once familiar and surprisingly fresh and original, executed at a level of quality that  belies its indie budget. In fact, there is not a moment in this thrill ride when I find myself wishing for a
spare $100K to plump up production values. As a filmmaker, I am awestruck by what Ahmad’s team  has accomplished with this deliciously horrifying story.

Written and filmed before the first episode of Stranger Things aired, My Soul to Keep treads that risky path of a PG-13 youth-appropriate horror film that will also captivate adults. And while the story is very  different, I can say with certainly that anyone that is a fan of Stranger Things will love this film. It is  certainly scarier, but what it has in common with this popular Netflix series and throwbacks like Goonies is exceptionally well-developed, loveable young characters and moments of humor that lighten the tension in all the right places. But make no mistake, the thread of tension is very pervasive. The  storytelling is tight and builds to a riveting climax and delivers plenty of scares along the way.

I’m not sure where to begin…so I’ll be begin with the first frames. From the first moment, the often- unnoticed art of set decoration creates a breathtaking palette that draws you into the story. Before a single line is uttered or a character developed, the complex score mirrors the set in transporting you into the story. I had the pleasure of seeing this film last year in a small advanced screening at Motor City Nightmares, and I couldn’t wait to watch it again. I found even more to love the second time through. And even though I knew what was coming, all the elements were so deftly executed that I found myself
holding my breath yet again. I won’t include any spoilers, but I will say that there are some surprises. While the story feels familiar in its monster-in-the-basement roots, it doesn’t rest on simple childhood fears.

9-year old Eli Braverman, played by Parker Smerek, has been convinced by his evil teen sister Emily (Emmanuelle Turco) that a monstrous legend of an evil lurking in their spooky basement is real. Their father (Brandon Matthew Layne, Shelter, The Pickle Recipe), feeling guilty about passing this story along to Emily originally, does his best to keep the peace and give Eli the tools to face his fears. The chemistry between Eli and his father is touching. It would have been easy to make the adult characters flat backdrops for the kids that soon become the foreground of the story, but writers Ahmad and Justin Hynous take no short cuts in developing complex, unique characters at every turn. Brandon Matthew Layne and Eli’s mother (Maria Wasikowski, The End of the Tour) both make excellent choices in portraying the very real balancing act of raising children that you don’t always understand or on some days, like very much.

But this is afterall, the younger characters’ story. Eli’s friends Sam (Remington Gelniak, Bennett’s Song) and Hillary (Arielle Olkhovsky, Bennett’s Song, The Dark Below), carry much of the story with the deftness of seasoned pros. There are at least 4 or 5 roles that most actors would consider dream roles in this film. Certainly Eli is the kind of role for which any kid in Hollywood would kill. While Michigan has a great depth of talent among adult actors, the state lacks the educational and experiential infrastructure to churn out a lot of seasoned 9-year olds. Ahmad is clearly gifted in working with child actors. I will admit when casting, I normally find a resume filled with commercial work to be the kiss of death for  young actors, but Ahmad has pulled a solid performance from the inexperienced Smerek.

Olkhovsky is one of the few exceptions to the lack of professional kids in Michigan. As Eli’s young stalker, the annoying but adorable Hillary provides us with the chilling recitation of the film’s tititular childhood rhyme, and Olkhovsky delivers the kind of flawless performance that shows she is Hollywood ready. But the real surprise stand-out is young Remington Gelniak. Admittedly, Hynous and Ahmad have provided Gelniak with the kind of character that can’t miss, but he delivers each smirk, each blustering moment of bravado and even each slightly inappropriate pithy retort with the timing of veteran. This is the kind of  side kick role that Hollywood usually gets wrong. But MSTK’s smart-alecky best bro has just enough vulnerability to make him real and sympathetic. I will reveal that I’ve worked with Olkhovsky several times and with Gelniak before only in very small feature roles, and I will readily admit, while I always  expect great things from young Arielle, the skill Remington displayed as young Sam came as quite a surprise.

In addition to excellent writing, great editing, design, score and acting, MSTK has special effects that most indies would drool over. The use of CGI is just enough to deepen the atmosphere and keep the audience on the edge of their seats. I prefer this to the big budget studio fare that looks like someon showing off their new tech toys to such a degree that the story gets lost. There is no risk of that with this story.
Director AJ Ahmad spent over an hour in the lobby interviewing attendees and taping reviews and talking with gushing enthusiasm about his film, all on an evening that was not the film’s premiere night. He Is affable and has an infectious passion for every aspect of his story from editing choices to poster art details. While he is confident in his story, he is humble about his role and has no director’s ego. He constantly gives up credit to everyone but himself. But this level of perfection in every detail doesn’t  come without a master at the wheel.

I was riveted hearing Ahmad talk about possibilities for the sequel. And while I won’t reveal any of those here, I will say that I will be first in line to see it. Sadly, we’ll have to wait a while. Meanwhile, you can catch My Soul To Keep at Emagine Rochester Hills thru Wednesday, Oct. 9. You can also catch it on  VOD beginning this week on Amazon, Direct TV, Comcast, Apple TV, Vudu, Dish TV, Google Play, Redbox on Demand and more.

 

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