I admit I have a penchant for horror movies, and I can usually find something to enjoy even in the worst of them. Certainly, 2006's "Stay Alive" is among the worst of them, yet there's a certain naive charm in seeing all the old clichés and stereotypes trotted out again. Make no mistake: This is a terrible horror film, bad by every measure of a film's badness. But....
The original theatrical release of the film was 85 minutes long and rated PG-13; this Director's Cut is 101 minutes long and unrated. The keep case proudly announces "violence, gore, sex/nudity, profanity, and drug use," I assume as reasons for our buying the new unrated edition. However, don't expect much in the way of any of these things. The film is still pretty tame. And pretty lame.
In essence, this is your basic slasher movie set in the world of video games, with an old-fashioned vampire-ghost story thrown in for good measure. You can't say the writers didn't try for a little of everything in this film. People get themselves murdered in every possible way but with the kitchen sink, and I'm sure somebody thought about that, too, but couldn't fit it into the plot.
Here's the deal: There's this video game called "Stay Alive." Not to be confused with "Staying Alive" or "It's Alive." Or "Stay." So, what did you expect, "The Princess Diaries"? The idea of the game is to stay alive in a haunted house. But here's the thing: If you die in the game, you die the same way in real life. I know that sounds familiar, but it's still more creative than simply having a madman chopping people's heads off in the woods.
The opening sequence is pretty good, actually; it's set in the game itself, with an animated character wandering through an old mansion, fighting off demons and evil spirits and such. I think if the filmmakers had stuck to an entirely animated feature about just the game, they'd have been better off. But, instead, we're subjected to the first in a string of deaths, this one by hanging.
There follows a series of false alarms, red herrings, loud noises, phony anticipation, lights going out, people repeatedly wandering around by themselves in dark places, and every other scare device we've seen a hundred times over. Needless to say, nothing in the film makes any logical sense, even by the standards of the fantasy world the film creates.
The first persons to die in the movie are a fellow named Loomis Crowley (Milo Ventimiglia) and his two horny roommates, who were beta-testing the unpublished game in question. Loomis leaves the game to his friend Hutch O'Neill (John Foster), a young law clerk and avid gamer with a young actor's requisite stubble, who invites five of his gamer friends to play "Stay Alive" with him. One by one, most of them die.
The movie moves along at the pace of a Swedish art-house flick, with about as many thrills and none of the drama. The video game opens with a narrator telling the gamers that they're all going to die, but, like, it's a game, right? And we don't know any of these characters, anyway, so who cares if they die.
One of Hutch's friends, Swink (Frankie Nunez), the designated geek, says he's getting "a little creeped out" when the characters in the game show up looking exactly like the group of players themselves. These players include the aforementioned Hutch and Swink; Abigail (Samaire Armstrong), a hanger-on Hutch just sort of picks up at Loomis's funeral; Phineas (Jimmi Simpson), the film's designated jerk, whom we root for to die; October (Sophia Bush), Phineas's sister, a semi-Goth girl; and Miller (Adam Goldberg), a lawyer who plays the game on-line from work. There are other characters in the film, like Rex (Billy Slaughter, perfect name) and Sarah (Nicole Opperman), who apparently died while I wasn't paying attention; and Detective Thibodeaux (Wendell Pierce), the skeptical investigating officer who literally disappears from the story about halfway through.
We eventually come to learn that the game designer based his creation on an old ghost story from the surrounding Louisiana area (why do filmmakers set so many of these ghost stories in the vicinity of New Orleans?), and now it's come to life. Hutch at first thinks somebody is monitoring the game, waiting until a player dies in the game and then duplicating the death in real life. But we know better. A bad horror movie doesn't need any pretense of reality; it just needs blood, gore, and suspense. Unfortunately, "Stay Alive" doesn't even have these qualities.
I mean, nobody thinks to just destroy the game? Instead, the young people investigate the ghost story on their own and uncover the usual silly, preposterous, juvenile mumbo-jumbo stuff favored by horror satires. Heck, for all I know, the filmmakers may have actually meant their movie as a satire. Surely, the character names alone are enough to qualify: Swink, Phineas, Abigail, October, and my favorite, Loomis Crowley (Dr. Sam Loomis being the lead character in many of the "Halloween" films, and Aleister Crowley being a notorious English mystic and occultist of the early twentieth century). Then, there's the Romanian countess who came to America two hundred years before and murdered numerous young girls, draining their bodies of blood and bathing in it to stay young. Right, you've also heard that one often enough before, but here it's trotted out as though for the first time. OK, as I say, maybe this movie was a satire after all, and I just missed the humor. It's corny enough, and, to be sure, the movie does become laughable awfully fast.
Still, given that the moviemakers appear to have worked within a limited budget, there is a degree of creativity on display that most ordinary slasher movies don't have. Yes, mostly "Stay Alive" is a succession of grim, disjointed images, with human characters grudgingly inserted from time to time, so, the stars of the show are really the art designer and the set decorator. Now, if the filmmakers could have dispensed with the actors and plot altogether, they might have had a better movie.
For a film just recently shot in 2.35:1 widescreen and transferred to disc enhanced for 16x9 televisions, the picture doesn't show up all that well. The screen size measures about 2.15:1, with colors that are most often pale and metallic; the image looks slightly blurred; and there are occasional visible moiré effects, fluttering lines. I can understand that the moviemakers meant to convey the dark, gloomy atmosphere of a video horror game, but it was at the expense of looking murky and grainy, too. Much of the film takes place inside dim, enclosed spaces, and, as a consequence, the detailing suffers. I doubt that any horror fan or video-game devotee will care.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is the best part of the proceedings, the surround effects perfect for a horror movie, with a strong dynamic impact, and thunder, creaks, moans, and other bizarre noises encircling us from the rear or side speakers. There is good bass response, too, even if it is not used for much purpose beyond cheap frights.
The first bonus we encounter is at start-up only, a series of trailers for other Buena Vista titles. The next bonus is a part of the Main Menu, a game to get us into the spirit of the movie's game; in it, you have to match characters with shirts and weapons. If you match them correctly, the disc promises a reward. The "reward" must have eluded me because I matched all three characters with their proper shirts and weapons and found only another start menu. Ah, but part of the new menu is yet another game of sorts that I didn't finish, so perhaps you will have more patience with it than I did.
The two primary bonuses are an audio commentary by director and co-writer William Brent Bell and co-writer Matthew Peterman, which tends to fade into silence quite frequently, a condition not entirely unpleasant; nevertheless, the two men do provide some interesting insights into filming a low-budget project. For instance, they tell us the problem they had trying to get an extra $300 to cut a bigger hole in a door. Can you imagine Steven Spielberg with such a problem? There is also a visual-effects reel that lasts a little over a minute and doesn't look much different from the movie itself, a series of weird images.
Things conclude with twenty animated scene selections and a chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Although there is no way I can cover for the sheer awfulness of "Stay Alive," the dedicated horror fan will find moments of pleasure amid the nonsense. For a low-budget film, it does have an appropriately disagreeable look to it; the premise is vaguely distracting; and there are a couple of brief, unsettling scenes. Beyond that, one of the movie's characters says it best in describing the "Stay Alive" game: "The game is fun," he says, "but it kind of moves along at a snail's pace." I couldn't have said it better.