In a cinematic age where most horror films are solely based on a marketing plan and have very little to do with actually being scary or even entertaining, it’s refreshing to see a movie come along that is completely sincere in its intentions. Stay Alive wants nothing more than to entertain you. It wants to do for the Playstation what The Ring did for VCRs. It wants to be a good horror movie.
It accomplishes none of those things, but it gets an A for effort.
Stay Alive is the first completely American-made effort in the recent wave of horror films about haunted technology and the first to tackle video games, which is surprising as it seems like the Japanese would have been all over the idea by now. Then again, about thirty minutes into Stay Alive as it occurs to you that you’ve just spent actual money to watch people play a video game, you start to think that the Japanese might have been on to something by side-stepping this particular genre permutation. At any rate, Stay Alive concerns a video game that acts like a séance, bringing the ghost of a bloodthirsty Countess into the real world while the players battle her in the digital realm. As people start dying in the same manner as their on-screen avatars, a collection of gamers attempt to fight back against the Countess and her army of little girl ghosts. Things end poorly for most of them; though because this is a PG-13 film, their untimely ends are mostly suggested rather than explicitly shown. Quick cuts abound.
What frustrates the most about Stay Alive is that its heart is firmly in the right place. First-time horror writer/director William Brent Bell unquestionably is a fan of video games and his attempts to bring that first-hand knowledge into his film are admirable. The cast, too, is equally game (no pun intended); while all are the standard attractive 20-somethings that are required for such a movie, they all are totally committed to their characters and make every attempt to pump energy and emotion into the utterly lifeless script. Of particular note is Malcolm in the Middle’s Frankie Muniz, making his horror debut as a particularly spazzy gamer who finds himself integral to the effort against the evil video game Countess. He proves, in the final act, to be entirely engaging as he balances nerdy paranoia with heroic necessity. Unfortunately, despite the director’s lived-in comfort level with the base material and the cast’s general enthusiasm, Stay Alive is a mess.
Rife with plot holes, lapses in logic, and an overall lack of sure-footed direction, watching Stay Alive is akin to watching the deleted scenes on a DVD’s special features; nothing connects, nothing flows. There were times where I honestly thought that the theater’s projectionist had accidentally cut out a crucial few feet of film. Unfortunately, the writing and direction are of such poor quality that in-house screw ups cannot be blamed. The dialogue is laughable at its best, and when it’s not, it’s boring. The film itself looks muddy and awful. Bell somehow manages to drain the city of New Orleans of all vitality and life; downtown Toronto looks like a likely candidate for Mardi Gras by comparison. Bad writing and flat direction can be overlooked in the horror genre, of course, if the movie is scary. One good fright can cover a multitude of sins. Stay Alive cannot muster even one engaging, tension-filled set-piece. Bell actually attempts to use, not just in one scene, but in ALL scenes, the sound of a vibrating game controller as a means to set the spooky mood. Embarrassing is the only word.
In the end, applying strenuous film criticism to a movie like Stay Alive is a lot like judging a five-year-old’s crayon drawing on its artistic merit. Both mean well, surely. But neither is what anyone would call art.