Everywhere you look these days there are over-the-top horror movies, but the torture-porn genre of the “Saw” films — homicidal mutilation served up as a “game,” with life lessons thrown in — is more or less limited to the “Saw” franchise. There haven’t been too many knockoffs of it. “Soul Mates,” however, has been unabashedly made in the carnival-of-ick mode of “Saw.” It even opens with two characters in handcuffs, wondering how they got to the dungeon in which they’re about to be toyed with like human lab rats.
Allison (Annie Ilonzeh) and Jason (Charlie Webb) wake up in the same bed, with metal bracelets on their wrists and a three-foot-long chain linking them together. For a moment there’s a dear-God-WTF-did-I-do-last-night? vibe, but these two have, in fact, never met. At first she thinks he’s a predator who has kidnapped her, and she uses a lamp to fend him off. But it turns out that a third party has done this to them. And here’s the punchline: It’s an online dating service.
The site is called Soul Mates, and Allison and Jason, trapped in a brackish green industrial maze, are about to go through a hookup from hell. Their tour guide and master of sadistic ceremonies is a white-haired fey creep called the Matchmaker, who appears before them in videos, where he introduces each new set piece of their nightmare by saying things like, “Sign up for Soul Mates before the walls of loneliness close in on you!” (At which point the walls literally start to close in on them.) The Matchmaker is played by the TV veteran Neal McDonough, who leers delectably and over-enunciates like a cross between William Shatner and Paul’s Grandfather in “A Hard Day’s Night.” He’s the Jigsaw mascot of “Soul Mates,” but who behind the Matchmaker is pulling the strings? This is the sort of film where you ask that question realizing that you don’t care much about the answer.
Allison and Jason are led from one lethal gross-out game to the next, each a sick-joke parody of some first-date activity that people who met online might engage in. We don’t learn much about the two characters (she claims to hate online dating; he turns out to be wealthy tech bro). And the stale romantic cliché-ness of it all is as close as the film comes to satire. It’s sort of saying, “Here’s how meeting on a website kicks off relationships in a deadly generic way.” (Not that people did this much different before.)
First up is a karaoke bar. Allison and Jason each have a turn at the mic, and the idea is: They both have to sing well enough to win an audience-approval rating that will keep an onstage victim, bound and ball-gagged and hanging in the air, from being lowered into a meat grinder. She sings Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and does a decent job. But Jason’s rendition of Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” is godawful. Before he’s halfway through, the victim has been lowered into the blades and churned into a long rope of hamburger. (This is a “Saw” where someone else suffers for your sins.)
From there it’s on to a “fancy” restaurant dinner, with Italian opera in the background, where if Allison and Jason don’t consume the appetizer (a big pile of bruschetta) and the main course (some mystery meat with mashed potatoes — the precise nature of the food will become relevant later on) within minutes, the waitress, who has a metal band strapped around her neck, will be promptly electrocuted. Then they’re off to the movies, where that ancient “Let’s all go to the Lob-by!” concession trailer precedes a live snuff film in which Jason’s estranged brother gets shot in the head. Actually, it’s a double feature: That first film looks civilized next to what happens to Jason’s fiancée.
As directed by Mark Gantt, “Soul Mates” is watchable semi-extreme trash. It’s not as good as the best “Saw” films, but it’s better than the worst of them. (Never did I suspect that film criticism would come to this.) The movie, it turns out, has one real trick to play on the audience. We think we’re watching a dating-site splatterfest in which the moral of the story is that the couple that lives out a chintzy faux “Saw” movie together stays together. But actually, “Soul Mates” is setting us up for the kill. The film’s theme song is “Getting to Know You” — the original trilling version from “The King and I” (1956), sung by Marni Nixon (who provided the voice for Deborah Kerr). And that bauble of catchy innocence is meant to underlie that in the age of online dating, getting to know you has never been a more deceptive — or treacherous — hall of mirrors.