Movies adapted from video games have generally been terrible, but maybe a picture based on the premise of a malevolent one could work. You’ll certainly never prove that from “Stay Alive,” though. Despite its title, this would-be thriller, about players who are killed for real when they die in a gruesome new game, is definitely D.O.A.
Like the distinctly unimpressive “Stay Alive” game itself (shown periodically in the action), the plot centers on the figure of Elizabeth Bathory-Nadasdy, the seventeenth-century Hungarian countess sometimes referred to as a female vampire for her reported habit of killing young women and bathing in their blood to preserve her youthful appearance. (She’s been used in movies before–Hammer’s “Countess Dracula” from 1971, for example, and the more recent French Canadian bomb “Eternal.”) Once the gamers realize what’s happening, of course, they try to unravel the mystery behind its murderous power, a quest that leads to still more of them being dispatched before a resolution of sorts is reached. (Needless to say, there’s a tacked-on coda that suggests further evil is afoot.)
The obvious inspiration for the script by William Brent Bell and Matthew Peterson, both first-timers, is “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” with immersion in the game replacing falling asleep. But the problem with “Stay Alive” isn’t that it’s derivative–most horror movies are–but that it’s simply not scary. The makers realize that keeping the action within the game format indefinitely would make for really dreary going, so they take the players out into the wider world before long (it’s good to see gamers get some sun for a change); but that proves disastrous too, not merely because the action grows more and more incoherent and inexplicable (the result, one supposes, of incautious editing by Harvey Rosenstock), but because the scenario is, unfortunately, set in pre-Katrina New Orleans, and trying to set aside the reality of what’s happened to the city is simply impossible.
Anyway, as the plot drones on and the survivors wind up at some sort of unexplained Louisiana recreation of the countess’ European castle, with the half-ghost, half-reincarnated noblewoman pursuing them in semi-corporeal form, the threads become so garbled and pointless that one ceases to care. Director Bell (suspiciously close to Boll, isn’t it?) tries to punch up the chases and various spooky goings-on with quick editing and startling camera moves that presumably mimic those in video games themselves, but the tricks don’t enliven the glumly fright-free picture in the slightest. They merely make it visually irritating as well as narratively messy, because as far as one can tell the game ceases to follow any rules at all, with characters being dispatched without actually first “dying” in it. (A line of dialogue attempts to wave away any objection by stating that the game appears to be “playing itself,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.) In this respect “Stay Alive” violates the most important rule in junk movies of this sort: you must at least conform to the rules you’ve established for your viewers, however silly they might be. When you chuck them out the window, there’s no reason for us to continue tuning in at all.
Nor is the general air of moody tedium enlivened by the mostly young cast. A few of them have actually done solid work before: first-billed Jon Foster, for instance, was in “The Door in the Floor” with Jeff Bridges, and was actually quite good. Here he plays the hero Hutch, the tormented soul whose friend’s death begins the cycle of murders (and who harbors a psychological wound from his past–a foreboding regarding fire that you just know he’ll have to overcome to save the day at the end), and comes across as weak and colorless. On the other hand, the resumes of Samaire Armstrong and Sophia Bush list mostly television roles, and on the evidence of their atrociously amateurish work here they should definitely keep to the small screen. And Jimmi Simpson succeeds in making his character so thoroughly obnoxious that you wish he’d bite the dust sooner–a definite no-no when it comes to building audience empathy. Adam Goldberg, playing Hutch’s boss, has been around longer than his co-stars, to variable effect, but he seems rather out of his element here. So does Frankie Muniz, who’s apparently trying to use his role as a gamer called Swink to morph–as his screen character does–from likable nerd to nerdy hero. He’d have better luck, though, if the vehicle he’d chosen wasn’t so hopeless a mess that it might have been titled “Malcolm in the Muddle.” Technically the movie is weak, with a pedestrian production design by Bruton Jones and sub-par camerawork by Alejandro Martinez that looks alternately gritty and murky. John Frizzell’s score is mediocre, too.
If there’s a single redeeming element to this movie, it’s that by contemporary standards it’s relatively restrained in the gore department. But that’s hardly enough to make it worthwhile even for the most dedicated horror or video game buff. “Stay Alive”? More to the point, stay away.