All too often horror fans (myself included) demand more gore in horror movies. The PG-13 rating is condemned for watering down one of the most enjoyable aspects of the genre. The R rating is often wrongly associated with high-quality horror. After all, if a horror film is gory, it has to be good, right? As many of you know, that is of course not always the case. Sebastien Landry’s and Laurence Morais’s Game of Death is a prime example of a horror film where gory doesn’t always mean good. This is a shame, as the film has an amusing plot that is unfortunately squandered by an underdeveloped script and some truly atrocious characters.
Game of Death is being billed as a cross between Jumanji and Natural Born Killers. That is sort of true, but add in a little bit of last year’s atrocious #Horror and a dash of Joseph Kahn’s stellar (to me, anyway) Detention and you’ll have a better idea of what you’re in store for with Game of Death. After a clever 8-bit opening credits sequence that shows you the aftermath of a previous playthrough of the game, you are introduced to seven despicable teenagers who are spending the weekend at a lake house. One of them happens upon the titular game which, after starting it, draws blood from each of their fingertips and begins a countdown that starts with the number 24. It isn’t long before the friends realize that they must kill 24 people in order to complete the game, and for every round that the time runs out the game will kill one of them instead.
Admittedly, Game of Death has a really cool premise. The problem is that even at a scant 74 minutes (including credits), Landry, Morais and co-writer Edouard Bond have trouble utilizing it to full effect. Rather than delve into the internal conflicts these characters may have over being forced to kill innocent people (or each other), Game of Death opts to go for the most surface-level of approaches. There simply isn’t enough material here to justify a feature length film. Extended shots of manatees and other arbitrary images are further evidence of that. This could have been an intriguing short film, but instead it’s a drawn out slog that becomes more and more obnoxious as it goes on.
Stylistically, Game of Death is inventive but, like its characters, rather pretentious. Landry and Morais come from a commercial and music video background, and they use that to their advantage for a while. It isn’t long before their methods grow tiresome though. While there are a handful of nifty ideas and filmmaking/editing techniques employed in the film, it all comes across as a bit high-and-mighty. Game of Death is the epitome of style over substance, which would be alright if the style were better. The synth score, composed by Julien Mineau is one of the highlights, as it mixes 80s-style synthesizers with old school video game music.
To top it off, Game of Death features some of the least likable characters you’ll ever see on screen. Unlikable characters are nothing new to the horror genre, but the characters in Game of Death lack any redeeming or endearing qualities whatsoever. There seems to be a new Millennial-bashing sub-genre emerging in the industry that Game of Death is all too happy to be a part of. It joins films like #Horror, Friend Request and Unfriended in that it relishes in making Millennials look like the absolute worst human beings on the planet before killing them in increasingly gruesome ways. Game of Death may not reach the dizzying lows that #Horror did, but it comes close. What it lacks is the sense of fun that made Unfriended one of the biggest surprises of 2015. The characters in that film were all horrible, but screenwriter Nelson Greaves imbued his script with plenty of wit and humor to make it bearable until they started getting killed. Spending just 74 minutes with the characters in Game of Death is an absolutely miserable experience.
The one thing that Game of Death does have going for it is its gore. There is blood all over this thing. The blood and guts are the result of the game’s one sole method of killing, and it is better to be surprised by it. The constant use of the same method of killing never gets old though, as it is immensely satisfying to see these brats bite it. The gore is excessive and over-the-top, and it’s glorious. For such a small-scale film, the quality of the practical effects is quite impressive and make the film worth watching. The game itself is a fun little bit of nostalgia as well, with the props department deserving praise for its simple creativity.
Is Game of Death worth watching? If you’re in the right environment, then yes. This will play very well to the midnight movie crowd. Screenings will no doubt be filled with hooting and hollering and appropriate reactions to all of the gross-out gags, but that doesn’t make Game of Death a good movie. Comparisons to last year’s Beyond the Gates will no doubt be made, and its an interesting comparison. Beyond the Gates excelled where Game of Death doesn’t (story, style and character development). Game of Death excels where Beyond the Gates doesn’t (gore and pacing). If you take the best parts of both of those films and combine them into one, that would be a film worth watching.
Game of Death had its world premiere at the 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 13, 2017.