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Stay Alive
Reviewed by Gary Mitchel, © 2006

Format: Movie
By:   William Brent Bell (writer-director)
Genre:   Horror
Released:   March 24, 2006
Review Date:   March 29, 2006
Audience Rating:   PG-13
RevSF Rating:   4/10 (What Is This?)

"That's cheating, you bitch!"

— Swink

I think since the first text-based computer games came out and the words "You have been eaten by a grue" floated on your monitor, there have been those who thought: "What if you died for real when you die in the game?"

You might be tempted to think the new teen-death-fest flick Stay Alive the first movie to use this premise, but it's not. The first one I'm aware of is from the great '90s direct-to-video horror house Full Moon, titled aptly enough Arcade, which featured Buffy favorite Seth Green. It was about a VR game that gets all too real. After that came Brainscan, where T2's Eddie Furlong went head to circuit board with another evil game.

Then there was the made-for-cable remake of How to Make a Monster, in which a computer-game monster migrates to the real world and kills off the game creators. Stay Alive is just the latest iteration in this not-so proud tradition. This doesn't even count the movies based on board games that come to life — Zathura or Jumanji or Witchboard, but that one's based on an evil ouija board, which some consider to be a game and others do not.

But that's not the debate I want to get into today. We're here to discuss Stay Alive.

So, as I was saying, Stay Alive is (at least) the fourth entry in the "evil video game" movie genre. Like the video games that inspire these movies, as time passes some things improve, such as graphics, and some things stay the same, like weak plots that exist just to push the story to the next scare.

So here's the skinny: Jon Foster is Hutch MacNeil, a video gamer with a haunted past. After a childhood fire he lived with a friend of the family, who dies at the beginning of the movie after playing the game Stay Alive. At the funeral, his buddy's sister gives Jon all of her brother's video games because "my parents say they're too violent" for her to have them. At the funeral he also meets Abigail (Samaire "X-Files" Armstrong), who apparently met our poor dead gamer after Jon moved away to the big city.

Jon and Abigail go to see the rest of Jon's buddies, who are also gamers. We have smart ass Phineus (Jimmi "Herbie: Fully Loaded" Simpson); his sister October (Sophia "Sabrina the Teen Age Witch" Bush) the goth chick; Jon's boss Miller (Adam "The Hebrew Hammer" Goldberg) and twitchy Swink (Frankie "Malcolm in the Middle" Muniz).

They all customize characters for Stay Alive, Miller doing so via Internet from his office, and play a co-op version of the game. To start the game, they all have to read aloud a prayer/curse, which is what allows the blood-soaked hilarity to ensue. From here, it's 10 Little Indians as the players die in the game, which leads to their dying in the real world.

The plot of the game is that there's a haunted mansion, the Bathory Plantation. The players are investigating the place, where the Countess killed young girls; and now these poor dead ladies serve the Countess and they all try to kill those foolish enough to enter the place. To win the game, and their lives, the players have to solve the secret of what happened in the mansion in the past, put the Countess to rest, roll credits. Of course, it's easier said than done.

After the first player dies, the police get involved, and of course Jon becomes the prime suspect. This puts him and his friends on the run as they try to avoid arrest and, well, Stay Alive. They try to puzzle out exactly what's happening, which leads to a climax at the real Bathory Plantation.

The movie does have some good points. First, the actual game looks pretty cool, a survival horror actioner in the vein of Silent Hill and Resident Evil. The performances are adequate, and the gamers are (aside from Swink's twitchiness) played as fairly normal people. Stay Alive has a few effective scares and has some very moody moments. The basic idea of the game is also pretty cool, a modification of the true story of the Hungarian Blood Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was walled up in a tower for supposedly killing young girls and bathing in their blood to keep her youth and beauty. They just moved it from Hungary to Louisiana. And near the climax there is a great intercutting of action being done in the game by one character as they guide Jon through the real mansion.

The film's flaws are that the characters are all thumbnails, existing only to die (as is the case in this type of horror). The direction is fine but uninspired, almost all the scares are of the BOO/loud noise variety, and whereever they shot this flick made a terrible Louisiana. There is none of the rich, moody, gothic feel that oozes from the abandoned plantations and cemeteries of the bayou.

And if it was filmed in Louisiana, then their DP and the director should be severely chastised for squandering one of the great American horror settings. The film also does the crime of breaking its own rules, which is highly annoying. The only saving grace for the writer is that at least the characters make that observation as well. But it's still bad form.

Stay Alive is just Evil Video Game 4.0. While it has a good performance from Muniz as Swink, good graphics and a cool villainess, there's nothing here really new or exciting. Save your money and rent Silent Hill 4 or Fatal Frame, and wait for this flick to hit DVD.

RevSF SpankMuppet Gary Mitchel was once trapped in video arcade game with Daily Bugle owner J. Jonah Jameson. No, wait, that was Iceman in Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Sometimes, when he’s playing volleyball, Gary pretends to be Iceman, but from Top Gun. Not in a sweaty sunburned homo-erotic way, though.

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