‘96 Souls’: Film Review

Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
An experiment gone very wrong.

A biochemistry professor is determined to keep his cutting-edge research out of the hands of Big Pharma in a sci-fi drama set in Los Angeles.

Beginning with a sensitive glimpse at the human-animal bond and ending on a note of social idealism, 96 Souls gets lost in the middle with an overload of sci-fi-inflected incident and info. The first narrative feature by writer-director Stanley Jacobs, who previously made the documentary Pitch People, revolves around a biochemist whose lab accident leads to wild breakthroughs. But the out-there premise never breaks through the wall of incredulity. With its many story strands and flat direction, the movie lacks a pulse, its ambitious hodgepodge of concepts refusing to jell.

Grinnell Morris leads the uneven cast as Jack Sutree, head of olfactory research in the fictional City University’s biomedical department. With the assistance of doctoral candidates Ram (Sid Veda) and Medina (Shelli Ratti), he’s seeking a way to visualize pheromones — that is, to make smells visible. He foresees medical applications that would hasten disease detection and stop the spread of such plagues as malaria and dengue. A university board member with a certified satanic air (Paul Statman) foresees lucrative tie-ins with Big Pharma, and Jack’s department head (Kevin Rock) does what he can to mediate their conflicting goals.

After Jack’s work-in-progress chemical formula accidentally gets in his eyes, he knows he’s on the right track because he starts to see flowers’ perfume, the aromas of food and the burned hydrocarbons of cars. The smells appear to him as wisps or patterns, in occasional flashes that cast everything he sees through a photographic filter (literally) and whose timing has no rhyme or reason. The more Jacobs lards his talky screenplay with blocks of explanatory prose, the less convincing or clear his story becomes.

The stilted conversations also address matters of spirit and essence — and life itself, emblemized at great length by an onion — after Jack’s visions shift from the olfactory, this time the result of getting the ashes of his beloved dog in his eyes. He begins seeing people’s inner selves: the raging anger beneath a corporate executive’s unruffled demeanor; the aching of a seemingly tough homeless musician named Bazemint Tape, an unfortunate stereotype given unexpected nuance by Toyin Moses. Jack puts this superpower of sorts to use during jury selection for a case he’s involved in — one of several subplots that go nowhere.

There’s also his separation from his wife (Jewel Greenberg), with her pat complaints about his devotion to work; the ailments of his elderly mother (Iris Karina); Bazemint’s search for her mother; culinary and spiritual advice from the priest (Rob Locke) who deploys the aforementioned onion; and a bit of dredged-up history involving the patients of a mental hospital.

Jacobs does at least have an eye for some unusual Los Angeles locations, though the visual style of the film as a whole is undistinguished. (There’s no credited DP.)

Overwritten and under-realized, 96 Souls throws a lot of ingredients together. But unlike Jack’s beaker filled with magic potion, in this cluttered drama there's no chemical reaction.

Production company: SJPL Films
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Grinnell Morris, Sid Veda, Toyin Moses, Kevin Rock, Paul Statman, Shelli Ratti, Rob Locke, Jewel Greenberg, John Hillard, Darla Haun, Mary Kay Wulf, Nikki Crawford, Linda DeMetrick, Michael J. Silver, Iris Karina, Lynn Duong
Director-screenwriter-producer: Stanley Jacobs

Production designers: Craig E. Nelson, Yoojung Han
Editors: Mike Kradas, Tim Farrey
Composer: Noah Lifschey

111 minutes