Choose Or Die (2022)

Video games are bad, ‘mkay?

Choose Or Die takes place in a slightly dystopian future that looks like the present, where our protagonist, Kayla (Iola Evans), ekes out a living cleaning clean offices every night, plus whatever she can scrounge by refurbishing obsolete technology.

During a visit with her friendly fence Isaac (Asa Butterfield), she discovers an old text-based video game from the 1980s called Curs>r that more than lives up to its name.

Isaac informs Kayla that there’s an unclaimed $100,000 prize that supposedly awaits the player worthy enough to win.

The bummer is that it’s a sentient game made with sorcerous runes that can take over reality, forcing the player to make impossible choices, usually having to decide which friend or family member gets maimed in grisly fashion.

Therein lies the tension in all its one-dimensional glory. Dig it, or don’t.

Choose Or Die gets a needed boost from actress Iola Evans, who invests Kayla with brains and bravery. Even with loved ones in constant peril, she keeps her focus while trying to hack the sinister system.

Writer-director Toby Meakins does an adequate job of creating a cold and confusing reality in which financially trapped citizens like Kayla engage in risky occult business in hopes of a prize that will rescue them from wretched poverty.

You know, like in The Hunger Games.

Though Kayla is a talented programmer, she can’t get her foot in the door anywhere, leaving her stuck with mindless labor as the only way to keep the drug-dealing landlord (Ryan Gage) from stringing out her junkie mom.

You should be entertained by the painful predicaments pondered in Choose Or Die, and you will definitely root for the plucky heroine. But it’s all pretty one-dimensional. Hopefully that’s enough.

Old (2021)

We’ve discussed M. Night Shyamalan’s work here before, and true to form, his new feature, Old has elicited sharply mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes has them squarely at 50 percent favorable.

Siting precarious fantasies such as The Village, The Happening, and Lady in the Water, fanboys and critics alike have pummeled the acclaimed genre director with charges of proffering half-baked, preposterous plots that don’t pay off. MNS routinely gets written up for Twilight Zone endings more befitting the small screen rather than a theatrical feature.

Stylistic quibbles aside, MNS is and always has been an artful storyteller, and in Old he delivers another dark fable, this time about a family’s vacation to a tropical resort that turns tourists into unwilling test subjects.

Having adapted the French graphic novel Sandcastle, Shyamalan fades in on a European household on holiday, comprised of Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal), wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), daughter Maddox (Alexa Swinton), and son Trent (Nolan River).

Along with a few other hotel guests, Guy’s group is bundled off to enjoy an afternoon of food and frolic at a secluded beach of postcard quality. Everything seems serene and wondrous, but time gets away from these blissful beachcombers, and they start aging in fast-forward.

The lion’s share of Old is spent with the unfortunate tourists as they try every method at their disposal to leave the beach, with very little success. Kids grow up. Young adults get old. Old adults get older and die.

Trent, a curious and open-minded lad, is soon replaced by successively older actors, but continues to try and puzzle out their predicament. He takes a quick time out to father a child with another guest on a similar biological clock, yet he remains committed to the task of liberating his loved ones.

Shyamalan gets credit for covering a lot of ground here, gracefully transitioning from drama, to horror, to deep questions about the ethics of scientific research.

Of course, we also get plenty of sentimental Mom and Pop moments to remind us that time slips away quickly so be sure to tell everyone you love that, blah, blah, blah.

In this fashion, MNS has always been able to have his cake and eat it, too. By combining humanity’s plight with forces at work beyond our comprehension, we are forced to consider perspectives other than our own.

Visually, Shyamalan continually disorients the viewer by having characters wake up in a daze and seeing familiar looking, but different people standing around them. Who are they?

A sunny, postcard beach isn’t supposed to this sinister, right?

This ambiguity provides the dark current that will keep you watching. It’s just like in real life, but in Old, we can feel the time passing. And it hurts like hell.

Better Watch Out (2016)

Once again, the poor babysitter is left to deal with the devil while bourgeois Mom and Pop drink the night away. And right before Christmas! After watching Better Watch Out, I know of one kid who’s getting a load of coal dumped in his yard.

On the verge of leaving town for college, Ashley (Olivia de Jonge) takes one last babysitting gig for the Lerners (Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen), keeping an eye on their son Luke (Levi Miller).

Unbeknownst to Ashley, Luke and his flunky friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) have contrived a “home invasion” to frighten her, in the hopes that a heroic-looking Luke will win her heart.

Yep, 12-year-old Luke has the hots for his sitter and his worst instincts take over. What starts out as Home Alone-inspired high jinks gets real dark, real fast, as Luke continually ups the stakes revealing him to be a vicious and clever sociopath.

“One-hundred one uses for duct tape,” he says merrily, as he binds Ashley to a chair.

The angel-faced kid is all bad, but when it comes to creating murder and mayhem he’s definitely a prodigy. They should probably consider moving him up a couple grades so he can torment older kids.

Miller is truly disturbing as Luke, imbuing him with a fiendishly high I.Q. His improvisational methods for dealing with a situation rapidly spinning out of his control impressive, to say the least.

De Jonge, for her part, is formidable as the object of Luke’s grotesque affection who goes to extreme lengths to thwart his sinister scheme.

With Better Watch Out, director and co-writer Chris Peckover has left a distinctive mark on the Babysitter Horror subgenre, where the evil is always coming from inside the house.

The Platform (2019)

Welcome to The Platform, a dystopian future where a prison sentence becomes a daily feeding frenzy or a grim kick in the guts, depending on what level of the prison you’re incarcerated.

Somewhere in Europe there is an immense tower with hundreds of floors. Called a Vertical Self-Management Center (or simply “the hole”), the tower has two prisoners per floor.

Once a day a platform with the remains of a grand feast is lowered to each floor, and famished convicts shovel as much food as they can into their mouths, caring not one whit for the unfortunates beneath them.

Prisoners on the highest floor gorge themselves, while those below Level 50 or so, find less and less to eat.

And if you’re on Level 172? Improvise.

Lest we think this set-up perpetually favors the higher floors, there’s a catch. After one month, the prisoners are put to sleep and moved to another level. So one day, you might be fine dining on prime rib, the next, your cellmate.

If you guessed that this is a brutal allegory of class warfare, give yourself a star.

The protagonist, Goreng (Ivan Massague), awakens in the tower, with vicious little cellmate Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) as his only company. Gradually, he gets used to the ugly routine, watching as Trimagasi literally pisses on the prisoners housed below them.

As Goreng serves his time, whether starving or stuffed, he attempts to talk to those above and below about a means of cooperation to feed everyone in the prison. Though his efforts are routinely scorned, he sees a bigger picture in the small solidarity movement.

Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia (The Platform is in Spanish with subtitles) has created his own Stanford Prison Experiment, where guards are only necessary once a month. The inmates provide their own cruelty, happily spilling blood over a chicken leg or an extra mouthful of wine.

Goreng, a fundamentally decent fellow who only wants to help, is forced into several violent confrontations with fellow prisoners. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s all rather harsh sledding and not intended for the squeamish, especially if cannibalism is a trigger.

As concepts go, “Eat or Be Eaten” isn’t especially profound. Fortunately, Gaztelu-Urrutia is an ambitious, inventive visual stylist, painstakingly painting a nightmare society that is literally devouring itself.

The Platform isn’t the least bit subtle. Sometimes a sledgehammer is the best tool for the job.

The Hills Run Red (2009)

Boy, do they ever!

A gruesome splatter fest about our devotion to cult films, The Hills Run Red is a lot like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only the family business is cinema instead of meat.

And instead of Leatherface, we have Babyface.

Movie nerd Tyler (Tad Hilgenbrink) is obsessed with a notorious horror film from the 1980s called The Hills Run Red that up and disappeared, along with its director, years before.

Tyler tracks down the director’s daughter Alexa (Sophie Monk), a junkie stripper with a heart of gold. After helping her kick heroin, Tyler arranges for Alexa to guide them into the “deep woods” where the movie was filmed.

Tagging along for this road trip in search of cinematic buried treasure is cameraman Lalo (Alex Wyndham) and Tyler’s restless girlfriend Serina (Janet Montgomery).

In a clear case of Careful What You Wish For, Tyler eventually gets to see the legendary film, only to discover that he and his friends are reluctant cast members.

Gallons of gore ensues, but The Hills Run Red isn’t just another homage to vintage slice-and-dice. There are astute discussions on the fly about horror movies, that bring up interesting points about what fans really want, e.g., Emotional Connection versus Violent Spectacle.

Director Dave Parker opens with a hellish montage sequence and keeps his foot near the gas pedal at all times, which means some plot points end up on the cutting room floor.

No matter. As the title implies, there is blood and there are guts, and they are used judiciously and effectively.

I also noticed on a number of occasions, the character Lalo offers sensible advice to his friend Tyler, that is completely ignored. He observes that horror movies take place away from civilization, so one should never leave the city.

They go anyway. To the woods.

Lalo also tells Tyler that maybe The Hills Run Red was hidden for a reason. Tyler should have listened.

 

Rest Stop (2006)

Next time you’re driving through remote, unfamiliar terrain and you feel the call of nature, please consider making other arrangements.

Nicole (Jaimie Alexander) and her BF Jess (Joe Mendocino) leave drab Oklahoma in the rear view and take off on a road trip to begin a new life in Los Angeles.

The only things standing in the way are Nicole’s tiny bladder and a wily serial killer in an old Ford pickup.

After having sex and getting lost, the couple pulls into a grimy Rest Stop where Nicole must pee in a substandard Ladies Room. She emerges to find Jess has disappeared, apparently abducted by a guy in a yellow pickup, that patrols the area like a shark.

Trapped in the grotty commode, Nicole passes the time by reading doomed messages written over the years by victims of the trucker-capped fiend known as KZL 303—the very same maniac currently forcing her into a vicious game of cat and mouse.

Rest Stop is a nifty (and nasty) example of the Killer on the Road genre, which includes the likes of Joy Ride, The Hitcher, Breakdown, and of course, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

Writer-director John Shiban successfully taps a rich vein of dread by constantly reminding us of how vulnerable we are once we leave the highway. Even a seemingly benign comfort station can be a deadly trap.

As a lifetime horror fan, my advice to incontinent road trippers is to keep driving. And never accept a ride from a Winnebago.

The Marshes (2018)

Another camping trip gone to hell thanks to poor social distancing. Let’s face it: Maniacs have no respect for boundaries.

Three biology students from an Australian university are studying water samples in a vast, remote marshy area. As is usually the case in rural communities, the eggheads run afoul of Aussie-brand hicks, hunters, and hillbillies, who take time out from their skinning and gutting duties to harass the learned strangers.

Pria (Dafna Kronental) assumes a leadership role, but her group’s proximity to the bloody and brutal poachers erodes her confidence and she starts having bad dreams.

Gradually, the three academics intuit they’re being stalked by an apex predator with a taste for human burgers.

From a biological standpoint, Pria and her comrades are now a trio of tasty specimens caught in a primitive web, and as the tagline blithely exclaims, “When Science Ends, Survival Begins.”

The spider rapidly making its way toward them is a legendary swamp cannibal known as the Swag Man (Eddie Baroo), presumably because he gives his victims free t-shirts and lighters before devouring their flesh.

Writer-director Roger Scott keeps us off-balance with an eye-popping arsenal of swinging camera moves and perspective shifts that make the marshland scenery appear impenetrable, menacing, and steadily encroaching on the anxious scientists.

Certainly The Marshes would fit snugly alongside any number of “trespasser beware” features, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wolf Creek, another grueling import from Down Under.

For a non-horror comparison, I was also favorably reminded of director Walter Hill’s Vietnam metaphor, Southern Comfort, which remains an all-time favorite survival shocker.

Would You Rather? (2012)

I knew the state of health care in America was bad, but having to submit to torture?

Actually, nothing is a surprise anymore. It’s just entropy in action.

Seeking a specialist for her dying brother, Iris (Brittany Snow) accepts an invitation to a VIP dinner thrown by philanthropist weirdo Shepherd Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs) in the hopes that she can wangle some dough out of him.

Lambrick and his “foundation” are known for lending a hand to folks down on their luck, and all Iris has to do to secure funding is win a game of Would You Rather? with seven other cash-strapped saps, while enjoying dinner and drinks.

It starts out with relatively low stakes. Iris, a vegetarian, chows down on a filet mignon for $10,000. Conway (John Heard), a reformed alcoholic, collects $50,000 for guzzling a decanter of whiskey.

After the preliminaries, the guests begin tormenting each other with a whipping stick, an ice pick, and a car battery.

Then it’s on to Let’s Make A Deal.

One by one, the contestants “drop” out of the competition until Iris is left with a moral dilemma; a seemingly lose-lose situation.

As I’ve previously stated, Torture Porn is one of my least favorite tropes. I honestly don’t care how ingenious the trap, or how hellish the torment—I need a good reason for these poor bastards to suffer.

If you can establish that, then by all means have at it.

In this case, as Lambrick points out, the dinner guests are requesting a great deal of money for their own reasons. Therefore, it’s only reasonable to give the prize to the one who proves they need it most. The financial straits that put them in Lambrick’s clutches are unimportant.

What matters are the principles they’re willing to sacrifice to improve their situation.

Would You Rather? is not a wholly original concept. I’m reminded of The Hunger Games, or The Simpsons episode where Homer humiliates himself for the amusement of Mr. Burns, who gives him cash for each dangerous stunt.

Yet it serves as an effective metaphor for a reality that is not fiction to millions of us. You know those death panels? They’re real.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babysitter Wanted (2008)

The subject is babysitters. Talk about a thankless job. Minimum wage, shitty snacks, bratty kids, and knife-wielding maniacs? Hard pass.

But what can you do when you have no bed to sleep in? Get a job, slacker.

Angie (Sarah Thompson) is a new student at a Northern California community college, with a dorm room that includes a sullen stoner roommate, but sadly, no bed. Beneath a bunch of Missing Person fliers on the community bulletin board, she finds a number for a babysitting job.

Once employment is secured, Angie looks forward to eventually getting a good night’s sleep.

Complications abound. The job is way out in the boonies and Angie’s shitbox car won’t make it. Also, there seems to be a horribly scarred bald dude following her.

At this point, Angie could probably write off her anxiety as a bad case of freshman jitters, since Jim Stanton (Bruce Thomas) and his wife Violet (Kristen Dalton) appear to be honest, hardworking farmers who just need someone to watch their little boy, Sam (Kai Caster).

What could possibly go wrong? Let’s put it this way: the scary scarred dude is the least of her worries.

In my estimation, writer and co-director Jonas Barnes utilizes the babysitter premise far more effectively than Ti West did in the similarly themed House of the Devil, which came out the following year in 2009.

While West is undoubtedly a gifted visual stylist, HotD comes across as a painfully self-aware exercise in genre clothes. The onscreen shocks were distant and removed, as though filmed through a dispassionate filter.

Babysitter Wanted is savage and satisfyingly visceral, with a cast that plays it to the hilt, including the always-dependable Bill Moseley in a rare non-maniac role.

Sarah Thompson, who looks a bit like Jennifer Garner, imbues Final Girl Angie with fire and fortitude, which comes in mighty handy when the kid she’s being paid to watch wakes up hungry as hell.

Wouldn’t you know it? He’s got dietary restrictions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creep (2004)

Talk about being typecast. Ever since her star turn in the 1998 indie thriller Run Lola Run, German actress Franka Potente could usually be found in films sprinting around scenic European locales, pursued by dark forces.

They don’t get much darker than the titular fiend in Creep, and the speedy Ms. Potente is off and running once again, this time through the labyrinthine London Underground.

Kate (Potente) is a fashionable socialite who gets a tip that George Clooney is in London, so she sets off in the wee hours to crash his party. Instead, she falls asleep on a subway platform and gets locked in the tube for the night.

Upon awakening, Kate discovers her life has rapidly turned to shit. First, she’s set upon by a coked-up coworker (Jeremy Sheffield), and then forced to flee into the tunnels chased by a murderous albino freak (Sean Harris) who lives in the subterranean ruins of an abandoned hospital and shrieks like a bird.

Creep actually works better as a Buñuelian bourgeois bad dream, rather than a straight-up monster movie. Kate’s literal descent into the lowest social strata is the true horror here. From privileged party girl to submerged in sewage, fighting for her life armed only with a spiked heel, she must adapt and survive guided by her most primitive instincts.

Writer/director Christopher Smith gets downright claustrophobic in his underground world building, and he keeps the action grim and brisk. And kudos to actor Sean Harris for creating a first-rate creature, a truly inexplicable anomaly capable of guest-starring in anybody’s nightmare.