Stay Alive [Guilty Pleasure Film]
In the days before being able to scroll through incredible, and endless, screens of films on streaming services browsing Horror films was done by painstakingly searching the aisles of local DVD shops and places like HMV. It could become a full day out of browsing titles, judging covers, skim reading synopses and coming home with a handful of interesting titles that you hope are worth the money. This process led me to some amazing discoveries, quite a few disappointing purchases and a whole heap of ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ treasures.
This month’s Guilty Pleasure Film falls firmly into that latter camp. From the moment I saw it’s grimy red cover with shackled hands holding a video game controller and the tagline ‘You Die In The Game- You Die For Real’ I knew I had to own Stay Alive, and that’s the story of how the DVD still lives on my shelf to this day. A deadly game being the drive of a Horror narrative wasn’t necessarily a new concept in 2006, there had already been some ‘Survival of the Fittest’ games in Saw and House on Haunted Hill, the ‘Deadly Cube Rooms’ in Cube, or ‘The Game’ in The Game, but this was one of the first that I saw looking at a killer video game. As a teen this was one hell of a draw.
Stay Alive starts promisingly, before we’re even introduced to a character we’re gifted a creepy eyed jump scare that throws us straight into the wonderfully 2000’s video game elements of the film. Everything about this film is a time capsule of gamer culture from the era, including the introduction to our first energy drink chugging beta tester Loomis Crowley (Milo Ventimiglia), whose name I can only assume is a reference to both Halloween and occultist Aleister Crowley as Victor Crowley only made his Hatchet debut that same year.
Poor Loomis doesn’t last long against the game’s antagonist and is left staring at his broken avatar and the words ‘Game Over’. After a false scare, involving his housemate having sex in a latex pig mask (whatever floats your boat), Loomis begins to get freaked out by shadows in the house as the real world and game world are starting to meld into one another. When he goes to check on his housemate again the pair have been murdered and Loomis is flung backwards to be hanged from his landing, just like his character. And with that the premise is set. You die in the game and you will die in real life.
It’s a premise that has so much potential and could have led to some great gory deaths, but unfortunately the film gets pretty messy after that. We meet our new players; Hutch (Jon Foster), the hero who suffers from childhood PTSD but seems to lack any personality beyond that. Abigail (Samaire Armstrong), the newcomer who seems to think it’s okay to photograph a stranger at a funeral and not get slapped. Phinn (Jimmi Simpson), the obnoxious gamer who says ridiculous things but may be my favourite asshole of the bunch. October (Sophia Bush), the goth girl who’s dark outside but sweet at heart. And lastly, Swink (Frankie Muniz), the man child gamer who looks ten but is super into the tech behind the industry. Since Hutch inherited the game from Loomis the gang decided to test it in his honour. After reading out loud the prayer on the opening screen the group are now linked to the game in a deadly manner. They must now play for survival, if their avatar snuffs it, so do they, but this game doesn’t always play by the rules and a pause screen won’t save them.
The mythos behind the game, and the killer spirit trapped within it, are what really had me interested when I first watched this film. It’s an element that definitely warranted further exploration, but I loved the combination of gothic styled horror legend and modern survival video game. The killer in this game is Elizabeth Bathory, a real figure from history who is known as one of the most prolific female murderers and has inspired many a twisted tale. She became known as ‘The Blood Countess’ and was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of young women and the legend began that she would bathe in their blood to preserve her youth. She’s featured as an inspiration for numerous film and video game characters and is woefully underused in this film.
This is a film that starts strong, gets super weak and then ends hilariously. It makes some very wrong decisions about who to kill, the most entertaining characters seem to be removed first. Yet, I still find myself being drawn back to it after discovering it years ago. There’s still something so enticing about the combination of in game graphics and the real world horror that just hits some of the right buttons for me. CliffyB was hired as a consultant for the video game aspects, proving the creative team behind this really did want to make the best version of an in film video game experience as they could. It’s a testament to their love for the project, it’s just unfortunate they weren’t given the full reign they wanted.
The film seems to have been butchered a little by censors, and precisely Disney who owned the Hollywood Pictures brand that put the film out, to gain the 15 rating it received in the UK. There was a lot more lingering on death, a whole heap of extra swears and sexualised language and more gore in the Director’s Cut, elements that would have really helped this film along. The missing scenes explaining the inspiration behind the game with the games developer, and the author of the story the game is based on, give us extra background information that really does help the lore of the game make more sense. It’s hard to get past the terrible accent work from the usually great Alice Krige but it really would have helped to have this included. Just like last month’s guilty pleasure film, Monkeybone, the shenanigans pulled by the production companies really did mess up the narrative and tone of the film.
Stay Alive was directed by William Brent Bell who also brought us The Boy, and it’s less favourable sequel Brahms: The Boy II, and found footage horror The Devil Inside which was an interesting film with an infuriating ending. It was co-written by his frequent collaborator Matthew Peterman and the two really do perfectly encapsulate the film through their Directors Commentary. They seem to be in on the jokes and have a lot to say about the heavy cutting. Some of the redeeming qualities of the film come through in the fact that its a video game Horror made by video game fans. There are lots of nods to other video games including Fatal Frame, Resident Evil and Silent Hill. There’s clear love for Horror Survival games woven into the script which helps remind me that the intentions behind this were good. So grab your headset and special gaming glove and give Stay Alive a go. The plot may be littered with holes, the characters one dimensional and the pacing a little off, but it’s fun, it’s silly and it’s worth the watch, especially the Unrated Cut that manages to bring more splatter to the goofball proceedings.