Producers: Matthew James Wilkinson, Sebastien Raybaud and John Zois Director: Toby Meakins Screenplay: Simon Allen Cast: Iola Evans, Asa Butterfield, Angela Griffin, Ryan Gage, Joe Bolland, Kate Fleetwood, Ioanna Kimbook, Pete Machale, Kayleen Aires Fonseca, Robert Englund and Eddie Marsan Distributor: Netflix
Since the 1990s horror movies have been chockablock with cursed video tapes and DVDs, evil video game, threatening blogs and possessed computers, and Toby Meakins’ debut feature is a thoroughly undistinguished addition to the crowd. It also feeds on the “truth or dare” formula that’s driven so many slasher pictures. This Netflix “original” is anything but.
Still, “Choose or Die” might have been at least watchable if it were more cleverly plotted or skillfully executed. Instead it doesn’t even bother trying to make the most rudimentary sense of its premise, and it muddles whatever coherence it does muster with chintzy, inept effects work.
The picture opens at the mansion of Hal (Eddie Marsan), who retreats to his man cave to escape the din of his wife (Kate Fleetwood) and son (Pete Machale), who are screaming at one another. A nostalgia buff with a love of the eighties, he’s collected all sorts of items from the era, including a video game called CURS>R, which offers him choices he must make to avoid punishment. They escalate until the last involves physical loss to both his wife and his son.
Fast forward three months and the focus shifts to Kayla (Iola Evans), a young woman who’s dropped out of school as the result of the guilt she feels over the accidental death of her brother Ricky (Kayleen Aires Fonseca). Now working maintenance in a large office building, she’s also trying to care for her drug-addict mother Thea (Angela Griffin), who’s practically catatonic in her inability to deal with the loss of the boy. As if that weren’t enough, both are menaced by their sleazy landlord Lance (Ryan Gage).
While visiting her friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield), an electronics nerd who lives in the basement, Kayla discovers a copy of CURS>R amid the junk piled up at his place. Noticing that the game promises a sizable cash reward to anyone who gets through all its levels, she decides to start it up.
Bad idea. The game can not only somehow see her present circumstances, but force her to make awful choices that harm the people around her, inflicting pain if she refuses to play. Eventually she convinces Isaac about what’s happening, and after a weird episode in which she must choose between saving him or a maniacal version of Isaac, they figure out a way to track the game to its original source. When they find a tape of its creator Beck (Joe Bolland) offering a goofy explanation of how it came to be and what its purpose is, they’re unable to prevent another tragedy.
The game then directs Kayla to confront Hal, and the two battle it out at his home, a fight in which, for some reason, each is able to inflict on the other whatever pain he or she suffers. Kayla not only wins the struggle but control of the game, which she uses to wreak righteous vengeance on malefactors. First in line: Lance.
In the end what Beck wrought, how he managed is, and what results are matters of a screenplay doing whatever is necessary at any moment to afford the opportunity for some new shock, grisly effect or supposedly creepy threat. Throughout Evans manages to maintain sympathy as well as a commendably straight face, but Butterfield is wasted in the role of jittery, infatuated sidekick. Of the others only the indefatigable Marsan makes much of an impression, though not a terribly favorable one. Horror icon Robert Englund shows up, though doesn’t appear, as the game’s voice. Meakins and editors Tommy Boulding and Mark Towns too often confuses turgidity for suspense, and the team of production designer Anna Papa and cinematographer Catherine Derry can’t disguises the cheapness of the settings.
“Choose or Die” might encourage you to think back to 1983, when “WarGames” ended with a salutary observation about Pentagon nuclear war simulations—“the only winning move is not to play.” That certainly applies to CURS>R, but with a slight alteration it applies to the movie as well: the only winning move is not to watch.