The film has effectively two centres, neither of them very gooey. The first is Ellinore (Honey Lauren), a café owner and pastry chef with an interesting set of photographs as well as a possibly dead, possibly fake parrot. Ellinore is, to say the least, troubled, as she is prone to sudden outbursts of rage and she hears various voices. As the film progresses, her instability and indeed violence become more pronounced. How the viewer sees her will depend on how much sympathy her character generates. On the one hand, it is easy to appreciate her sadness and indeed trauma. On the other, she sometimes tips into screeching pantomime and becomes more of a caricature. Lauren delivers both registers perfectly well, but the script feels underdeveloped and tends to fall back on cliché and histrionics.
The second centre is the four kids, Lily (Sarah J. Bartholomew), Nate (John Salandria), Wendy (Amber Gaston) and Kyle (Mark Valeriano). They make up a band and, travelling to a gig in a van, echo both Scooby Doo and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The group dynamic is quite fun: gothic Lily is a recent recruit, essentially because Nate has the hots for her; nerdy Nate and former jock Kyle have a longstanding friendship with a deep-seated resentment; sensible Wendy rolls her eyes at the others a lot. The bickering among the four during their road trip is sometimes engaging and sometimes annoying, and it is notable that the same cycle of conversation is repeated but with different outcomes. When they find themselves in a (literally) tight spot, they do band together (no pun intended) but the antagonism remains. The friction between them makes the group relatable, even if the recurring issue of Nate and Kyle’s history means that Wendy gets somewhat side-lined. Lily, meanwhile, is another cliché with an abused background and no sense of love or compassion in her life. This can work as a character but, again, more details are needed to make the character engaging, rather than simply being referred to late in the narrative.
Indeed, late in the narrative highlights the fundamental problem with Sweet Taste of Souls. Its premise might well work better in a short film or an episode of The Twilight Zone or The X-Files, but it provides insufficient nutrition for a feature. From the beginning, we are introduced to Ellinore, her photographs and her pies, and a mystery is presented with a visual ripple effect. The answer to this mystery is clarified later on, but once we know what’s going on, there aren’t many places to go.
The lack of chewable material becomes all the more apparent when other characters, Sid (Frank Papia) and Barney (Thom Michael Mulligan) turn up halfway through. Exactly what they are is unclear, aside from Sid being haunted by the disappearance of his daughter. Was her fate similar to that of the four kids that we see? This is never made clear, and the further actions of Sid and Barney serve pretty much as mechanical plot motivation. Perhaps if they had been there from the beginning, the film would be more coherent, but as it stands, it feels like three different story ingredients kneaded together before being only half-baked.
In addition, while the premise could be horrifying, Ross does not pursue this potential, aside from a bathtub moment that features some heartwrenching screams. Sequences of imprisonment are only shown from a couple of angles, never looking out nor taking the viewer into the incarceration. This limited view means there is no sense of entrapment or claustrophobia, and as a result, not many scares. The film is not that visually interesting either: the bright space of Ellinore’s diner as well as the sites of imprisonment are not contrasted with darker spaces, and again there is little sense of entrapment despite much of the action being confined to a single location. Weirdly, there seems to be a Twin Peaks reference with the emphasis on cherry pie and black coffee, suggesting that the town Angel Falls is a weird place just outside of our own reality. But with a lack visual or indeed auditory flair, the references fall flat, and the viewer might find themselves wishing they were watching Twin Peaks.
Ross offers some lacklustre set pieces with a dearth of suspense due to a lack of internal logic – when a character runs around switching lights off, it helps if the actual space on screen becomes darker. Quite what is the underlying supernatural power at work is never clarified, the film seemingly mistaking a lack of clarity for ambiguity. There is also a messy visual effects sequence in the final act which makes little sense and lays bare that the film has lost the plot. Here and there are some good jump scares, one of which is genuinely upsetting. But in the context of the film, they add little beyond that initial jump, as the emotional weight gets lost in the soggy pastry.
Sweet Taste of Souls has an intriguing premise that could have been disturbing. Unfortunately, messy writing and stilted direction mean that this concoction has too little of its central ingredient, while the other components added to the mix provide uneven flavours, with the end result being an undercooked and unsatisfactory dish.