Horror and video games have a long history together. Right back to the Atari 2600 days and the crude Texas Chain Saw Massacre game up to such modern classics as the Dead Space series, we’ve always been willing to interactively have our pants scared off. My first real experience was the Resident Evil series on the PlayStation and, perhaps it was the clunky controls, I remember sense of panic when being surrounded by zombies. It’s the melding of gaming with scares that they’ve tried to hit upon with Stay Alive and when it’s not catering to gamer stereotypes and unconvincing in-game moments it’s trying (unsuccessfully) to pepper in the legend of Countess Elizabeth Bathory.
Stay Alive is a popular, yet underground, video game that has participants entering a virtual world where they have to explore an ominous mansion and deal with all sorts of monsters and traps. It’s into this digital nightmare that Hutch (Jon Foster) finds himself drawn when, as we see in the opening moments, one of his best friends is killed the exact same way his character perished in the game. Finding a copy of it in his pal’s personal effects, Hutch is soon being badgered by his group of awkward and sarcastic nerdy buddies to play the game together.
And what a batch of horrible clichés they are. You get the feeling director William Brent Bell and his co-writer Matthew Peterman are trying their hardest to populate their flick with off-beat characters but they’re more annoying than anything. There’s Phin (Jimmi Simpson) the comic relief loaded with one-liners, Hutch’s reluctant girlfriend October (Sophia Bush), the tech savy weirdo Swink (Frankie Muniz), and, to even out the genders, Abigail (Samaire Armstrong). They’re more obnoxious than engaging so you figure we’d be happy they start getting killed when it turns out if you die in the game, you die for real. Or something. These rules fluctuate throughout. Let’s just say the script doesn’t make a lot of sense as we’re soon switching between shitty attempts at digital gore during the weak in-game moments, some mediocre death scenes, and a crappy sub-plot that has Hutch and October trying to hunt down the real remains of Bathory and destroy them so her spirit can no longer murder using the game – yeah, it’s stupid.
This all leads to a dopey ending with an even dopier twist after we’ve endured dialogue like “The game’s playing by itself!” and a moment that tries to mix them searching for the body while Swink desperately plays the game to help them. I also have to say, I really don’t find a horse drawn carriage to be that scary (you’ll see).
At the time of Stay Alive’s release Muniz was the most recognizable cast member due to him co-starring in “Malcolm in the Middle”. He was also coming off a pair of moderately successful Cody Banks movies so perhaps this was his attempt to appear in more mature fare. He’s just given the unfortunate task of having to spout technical jargon while wearing ugly visors... sideways. Our heroic duo Foster and Bush are pretty bland. Simpson, who I think is amusing as hell on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, eventually becomes tiring delivering so many lame jokes but it’s not his fault. Armstrong (“Entourage”) looks good but, like every character here, leaves no impression. Most wasted though is the likeable Adam Goldberg as Hutch’s wannabe cool boss.
Given that I watched Stay Alive in its 101 minute “Unrated” version – which runs a whole sixteen minutes longer than the PG-13 theatrical version and contains an added character as well as additional blood, skin and cursing – it was still a pretty dull, uninspired mess. It might have been easier to endure the 85 minute version but goddamn if it wouldn’t have been more painful missing all of that. As is, this is one lame time that was trying really hard to jump on the gaming bandwagon only for it to look horribly dated almost ten years later. And that Bathory stuff still makes no sense. Surprisingly, Bell would find box-office success in 2012 with The Devil Inside – which I’ve not seen due to it being found footage and (apparently) quite terrible. (Chris Hartley, 11/19/15)
Directed By: William Brent Bell.
Written By: William Brent Bell, Matthew Peterman.
Starring: Jon Foster, Samaire Armstrong, Frankie Muniz, Wendell Pierce.