In recent years, horror movies have been frequently falling into one of two categories: the fantastic and the atrocious. Which group each film falls into is easy to discern. Do the filmmakers treat their audience with respect? Do they show a sturdy knowledge of what frightens and, more importantly, how to build tension, dread and a sense of unease? Have the storyline and characters been conceived of properly? Has the studio been truthful to the genre rather than sacrificed quality in exchange for the under-17 demographic and a PG-13 rating? Is there anything more to the filmsome kind of social context or maybe a glimpse at human behaviorthat lifts it above being just about a body count? In the last year alone, "High Tension
," "The Devil's Rejects
," "Wolf Creek
" and "The Hills Have Eyes
" have all proven to be superb examples of how to do a so-called "slasher" pic right, no doubt because the answers to all the above questions were in the affirmative.
Even audience members who aren't a fan of the genre and might prematurely write the aforementioned pictures off without giving them a fair chance may have to reevaluate their opinions after sitting through "Stay Alive." Like 2005's piss-poor remake of "The Fog
," "Stay Alive"or, more precisely, writer-director William Brent Belldoesn't have the first clue how to make a watchable horror movie. Mistaking jump scares and blurry, dark figures passing in the backgrounds of shots for genuine apprehension and terror, and then more often than not having the nerve to cut away before the actual death scenes arrive, Bell and co-screenwriter Matthew Peterman have created a complete cinematic joke that should leave everyone feeling cheated and empty.
The central premise has promise upon first sight, but it is floundered by lazy characterizations, lazier plotting, and would-be serious dialogue that inspires giggles and unavoidable smiles above all else. When Loomis Crowley (Milo Ventimiglia) and his two roommates are killed soon after he plays an underground video game demo called "Stay Alive," the disc falls into his friend Hutch's (Jon Foster) hands following the funeral. Paying tribute to Loomis' memory, Hutch and die-hard gaming pals Swink (Frankie Muniz), siblings October (Sophia Bush) and Phineus (Jimmi Simpson), new girl Abigail (Samaire Armstrong), and Hutch's boss Miller (Adam Goldberg) get together to try out "Stay Alive." When Miller dies in the game and is then found dead himself in exactly the same way, Hutch and company begin to suspect that what happens in the video game is becoming a reality. As they set out to discover the origins of the game before they, too, fall victim to its curse, it becomes apparent that the supernatural killer is none other than Elizabeth Bathory, aka "The Blood Countess," a real-life 17th-century serial killer who allegedly claimed over 600 lives.
If you are expecting answers to this ill-fated group's research, you're barking up the wrong tree. Not only do they never find out who created the game, or the connection between the designer and Elizabeth Bathory, or the logic behind how a video game could come to life in the first place, they also never locate the reason for this film's existence. "Stay Alive" is a turd on every levelthe most telling sign of doom is that the very first shot is the best of the entire 85 minutesand a positively abysmal attempt from Disney-owned company Hollywood Pictures to steal a piece of the currently popular horror pie.
Scares are nonexistent. The blood/gore factor, which has been eviscerated in the editing room to receive a PG-13 rating, is wimpy and lame. The story (1) doesn't make sense even in the land of fantasy fiction, and (2) wastes the potential set by the clever notion that a video game might actually start bleeding over into the real world. Subplots, such as the investigation of two police detectives and their suspicions of Hutch when he is linked to all the crime scenes, disappear almost as fast as they arrive and are never mentioned again. Cringe-inducing dialogue includes such howlers as, "I hate you for ever bringing this game into our lives," and an unlikely exchange in which Hutch tells Swink, "You know what to do," and Swink replies, "Stay alive." That these lines are meant to be taken on a purely dramatic level is more horrifying than any of the actual horror-related material. The less said the better about the terribly awkward romantic interludes between Hutch and Abigail even as they are in the midst of being terrorized, and one particular scene where Abigail actually plays "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not" with rose petals.
For a major studio release, the acting is embarrassing. Admittedly, it would be a difficult undertaking for even Meryl Streep to breathe life into these transparent ciphers posing as characters; literally nothing is learned about anyone except that Hutch has an office job, October and Phineus are sister and brother, and all of them enjoy playing video games. Jon Foster (2004's "The Door in the Floor
") at least keeps a little dignity as Hutch, but he deserves far better roles than this. As Abigail and October, Samaire Armstrong (2001's "Not Another Teen Movie
") and Sophia Bush (2002's "Van Wilder
") were apparently cast because of their luminous physical beauty rather than any detectable thespian abilities. And although it is fun to hear "Malcolm in the Middle" star Frankie Muniz (2004's "Agent Cody Banks: Destination London
") spout off cuss words, he sticks out like a sore thumb as game techie Swink. Muniz comes off more like an annoying younger brother than a believable part of the ensemble. Oh, and whoever came up with the characters' ridiculous namesi.e. Hutch, October, Swinkshould never work in Hollywood again. Somehow it's not as effective when a young woman's life is in danger and the rest of the characters are desperately calling out the name of a month.
It bears noting that "Stay Alive" ranks as the worst theatrical release so far this year, and that is including a Uwe Boll film ("BloodRayne
"). Some of the location shooting in New Orleans (shot shortly before Hurricane Katrina) is attractive, and some of the visuals of the video game are atmospheric, but that's about it as far as compliments go. Everything else is rotten to the corecrummy, asinine, incoherent schlock that plays like a cross between an early video game demo that hasn't been fully worked out in the development stage and an episode of "The Young and the Restless." In his first (and quite possibly last) directing effort, William Brent Bell suggests that his opinion of the average filmgoer is on the low side. With the exceedingly stupid and condescending "Stay Alive," he treats us all like first-class idiots.