Directed by: William Brent Bell
Starring: Jon Foster, Frankie Muniz, Samaire Armstrong, Sophia Bush
There's something almost charming -- certainly brave and a little bit loopy -- about trying to craft a film for the video-game set -- even more so when you up the stakes with a trailer that tells them that one in four of them is addicted to playing. (Having seen this trailer seated in a row with five -- clearly addicted -- gamers, I thought the figure was perhaps low.) If there is a more persnickety cross-section of humanity, I've yet to meet them.
They are bound to tell exactly what is wrong with any film adaptation of any video game, in great detail and then spend an hour detailing all the inhospitable and downright illegal things they'd like to do to Uwe Boll, who specializes in turning games into things that resemble movies only by virtue of the fact that they're mounted on reels.
Wisely, the makers of Stay Alive have opted not to try to duplicate a particular game, but created one of their own called, aptly enough, Stay Alive. Alas, this merely makes the criticism more abstract in a generic sense, allowing it to focus on why this or that aspect of the ersatz game is impossible. I'm not at all sure that it's productive to debate whether or not you can pause an online game in the context of a movie that works on the premise of a game in which your demise in the game will result in the exact same death being duplicated in real life. In such a case it strikes me that realism is singularly beside the point.
Filmmaker William Brent Bell has only one previous directing credit -- something called Sparkle and Charm that seems never to have been released, but boasts an impressive 8.3 (out of 10) rating on the Internet Movie Database based on 18 votes (Mr. Bell perhaps comes from a large and supportive family). Frankly, he hasn't made all that bad of a movie here -- within its limited aims.
Certainly the predominately teenage audience I saw it with it took it on the appropriate level -- hooting at the screen, offering rude commentary, occasionally screaming and generally having a good time with the movie. Well, it's that kind of film, and this response undoubtedly heightened my enjoyment as much as it enraged the woman sitting behind me, whose occasional outbursts for the kids to shut up not only missed the point of the experience, but were far more annoying than the kids.
Sure, it's a video game rip-off of The Ring and has none of that film's artistry. Yes, it's completely ridiculous and often funny in ways to which it probably doesn't aspire. The soundtrack alone -- especially with its low-rumbling noise that suggests nothing so much as a passing vehicle with a metal-vibrating sound system cranked all the way up -- is good for a giggle. But there's nothing inherently unlikable about the movie's silliness.
Bell and co-writer Matthew Peterman attempt to advertise their horror-flick credibility with character names like Hutch (citing Rosemary's Baby) and Loomis Crowley (citing not only Aleister Crowley, but Dr. Loomis of Halloween fame, whose name was already a nod to Psycho!). OK, I admit I'm puzzled by the name of Frankie Muniz' character -- Swink Sylvania. Is this a reference to a light bulb company or to the generic name Paramount used to slap on mythical Ruritanian countries in the 1930s?
The movie itself is unrepentantly absurd, which actually works in its favor, especially since the last reel turns out to produce the kind of respectable -- albeit predictable -- climax that has eluded far more seriously intended recent horror films like Dark Water and The Skeleton Key. At least Bell understands the need for a big ending -- and is capable of delivering one. Undoubtedly, an "unrated" version with extra gore will hit the stores in a few months, and while this might make for a better movie, the movie really should be seen -- if seen at all -- with the largest possible audience. Rated PG-13 for horror violence, disturbing images, language, brief sexual and drug content.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke.