Stay Alive (2006)

Stay Alive PosterStarring Samaire Armstrong, Jim Bishop, Sophia Bush, Jon Foster, Adam Goldberg, James Haven, Maria Kalinina, Billy Louviere, and Frankie Muniz

Directed by William Brent Bell

Released by Touchstone Pictures

What if the horror video games you’ve come to love and fear decided to play nasty little tricks on you? What if those tricks led to your sticky end? This is the question posed by the creators of Stay Alive. It all seems like a fun and fresh premise — until you realize you’ve seen it before. The Ring was about a haunted video tape that cursed its watcher, who would then meet his maker in a matter of days. Stay Alive promises that gamer death equals death in the real world as well. One such death triggers the events that unfold in this 90% bloodless PG-13 jumpfest.

A super geeky game tester (played by Milo Ventimiglia A.K.A. Jess from “Gilmore Girls”) makes weird faces and is offed unceremoniously along with his roommates. When his good friend Hutch (Jon Foster) comes to pay his last respects, he inherits the cursed game which propels the player into the Resident Evil-esque world of the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, whom you’ll recall as the aristocrat with a hankering for bathing in blood to retain her youth. Getting together with five buddies to play the game in honor of their fallen friend starts the red stuff flowing. Let’s meet the “gamers” who’s stereotypes often speak louder than their lines, but are still used very well in progressing the story.

First there’s Hutch MacNeil, all around good guy and avid gamer plagued by the fears of his past which we get to revisit in countless flash back sequences. His two best friends are October Bantum; the tough as nails but still sexy and elite gamer chick; and her brother Phineus Bantum; the game obsessed, kind of dirty looking, insensitive sarcastic guy. Frankie Muniz plays the mouselike Swink Sylvania who looks like he followed the cast into the room when they were filming as they look at him with anoyed faces and high school giggles. Next is Abigail, the sexy but slightly freaky heroin tailor made for keeping alive and little else. Rounding out the crew is Miller (Goldberg or that awkward guy on all the TV shows), Hutch’s boss and closet gamer whose suit is so much a part of him, he puts it on in the game!! October gets set up as the “history explainer”, having read all the Bathory legends, while Swink provides the techie speak explanations. This works way better than having the hero spit out monolouges on why everything is happening as if the power of Google compelled him. From here on in, the tag line of the movie says it all…You die in the game, you die for real.

Unfortunately commercials and trailers wreck the first two deaths for us, so the first half hour only serves to set up the story which will stir the ghosts of horror movies past. As the movie picks up speed and the death toll rises, the rules are laid out then quickly thrown out the window. If you die in the game, you die in real life shortly after, and always in the same manner as you had at the hands of the Countess. The Lady Bathory comes for you using the usual creepy little kids to drag you to her kicking and screaming. Fair enough. You stop playing the game, the freaky tots just haunt you for the rest of your days right? Wrong! It seems that once you enter game play, you are IN play 24 hours a day whether you hit pause or not. After that, the only cohesive rules are those set up in the game itself, so watch for those. Not to worry, they’ll spell it out for you. This is designed for a 13 yr old crowd after all.

Shadows creep just out of eye-shot and twitching ghouls provide much of the heebie jeebies that I’ll admit are pretty damn effective. I only wish they’d continued along these lines throughout the entire movie. It becomes a case of seeing too much destroying the unknown, which then forces the film to rely on the strength of the almighty CGI. Also, and oddly enough, the device used early in the film that send chills up your back are deserted later in the film only to be replaced by… horses?! Even Sleepy Hollow didn’t try and make it’s undead horse a point of fear… and that’s honestly the only horse moment I can remember in any horror-ish movie. While Stay Alive doesn’t fall completely flat, it’s nowhere as creepy as it could have been. Cutting away from every death scene will give you flashbacks of the bloodless years when the MPAA cut movies all to hell. I suppose such is the price of a PG-13 rating. What you are left with is little to fear and even less to cringe away from.

The acting is at a level that would make any soap opera veteran proud. Thrill to the quivering lower lip of Anna from “The OC’ (Samaire Armstrong)! Rally behind the steely gaze of Brooke fromOne Tree Hill (Sophia Bush). Feel the pain of Hutch as he screams into his steering wheel “WHY DID I BRING THIS GAME INTO THEIR LIVES!!!!!” ~sniff~ My favorite part would be cheering on “Malcom in the Middle”! GO FRANKIE MUNIZ!! If he’s not wielding a chainsaw in his next film, it would be a severe injustice. Not since I Know What You Did Last Summer have we seen this many teen-ish stars added to a body count. Maybe a selling point? Seriously though, if names like Swink, Rex, and Hutch don’t propel you into teen drama land quick enough, did you get a load of October??!! Why did you name me October, mommy? Don’t you love me? Fannntastic.

The thing I’ve read by horror fans most often about Stay Alive is that they would be dying (no pun intended) to get their hands on a real game version of this movie. Having played a few freak out titles myself, I’m inclined to agree. If Stay Alive doesn’t make a strong showing at the box office, they’ve definitely got some money to rake in with licensing the title to some ambitious company. I say ambitious because the dynamics of the movie game leave a lot to live up to. Characters generally move more fluidly than I’ve seen before, making some shuddering ghouls all the more freakish and others bolt in your direction with a speed I’ve not seen in a game to date. Even the girl crawling on the wall moves with a fluid ease we might get to see on the XBox 360 or the upcoming PS3. It’s hard to say much more about how a translation would go as the game itself seemed to have little story other than kill the dead kids and don’t get killed yourself. After all, it’s intended design was to keep the kids busy long enough to get gutted in real life, right?

Stay Alive provides jumps sure to get the little pink-wearing girls in your town squealing, but lacks the creeping quiet and looming dark needed to suck you into a seriously good scare. Sure, you’re reading a review by a guy who hasn’t been creeped out by a film since Jacob’s Ladder, but I know a missed scare opportunity when I see one. I will say that there are few dead spots to cause you shifting in your seats. The fun level also gets a bump as the characters learn the game rules and start using them in their favor… of course most of them are dead by then. I won’t even go into the ending that will leave you groaning with impending sequel pains. In short, Stay Alive isn’t a total wash if you’re looking to kill a Saturday afternoon or night if you get off on hearing little kids scream. However, if you were looking for something that will leave you dreading entering that darkened room in your house… well, keep looking.

3 out of 5

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Jon Condit

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