Director: William Brent Bell
There aren't many horror movies that involve video games. Sure, there've been horror movies inspired by video games, such as Silent Hill and Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil trilogy. But I really can't think of too many horror movies where video games are an integral part of the plot. There was Brainscan in 1994, and that was pretty much it until Stay Alive was released in the spring of 2006. Though it was only the most modest of box office successes and has been dismissed by the more devoted horror faithful, I found Stay Alive to be a pretty entertaining little movie. I'm not going to argue that it should have been a smash hit or even that the movie is all that great. But I thought it was fun, and I'd like to explain why.
When an old friend dies a violent death, Hutch (Jon Foster) is heartbroken. His sorrow is lessened somewhat, however, when he inherits his friend's video game collection. Among these games is a bootlegged game titled "Stay Alive," a horror game featuring bloodthirsty 17th-century countess Elizabeth Bathory as its main villain. Hutch's friend had been beta-testing the game prior to his death, so he gathers together a group of fellow gamers smart-ass stoner Phineas (Jimmi Simpson) and his Goth sister October (Sophia Bush); nerdy Swink (Frankie Muniz); Hutch's boss, Miller (Adam Goldberg); and Abigail (Samaire Armstrong), a newcomer to the group and boots up a round of "Stay Alive" in memory of his deceased friend.
But what they believe is a harmless yet intense game proves itself to be much more dangerous when Miller's body is found the next day, murdered in exactly the same fashion as his character was killed in the game. They brush it off as an incredibly horrifying coincidence, but the group soon finds that the same fate is befalling each of them as well. And to make things worse, the game is even takes on a life of its own by playing itself to ensure their suffering. As elements of the game's world starts bleeding into our reality, those who've avoided death are must face off against Elizabeth Bathory's ghost (Maria Kalinina) and find a way to stay alive.
I must admit that I'm not completely sure why Stay Alive has been so overlooked. Was it because of the PG-13 rating the movie carried during its theatrical release? Could it be the fact that its cast features actors who have appeared in such teenager-oriented television shows as Gilmore Girls, The O.C., One Tree Hill, and Malcolm in the Middle? I don't really know. No, Stay Alive isn't a great movie or anything like that, but it's a relatively solid movie that is perfectly acceptable entertainment in spite of its flaws.
Director William Brent Bell does a fine bit of work here, making certain mundane scenes seem more lively with a combination of cinematography and editing. He doesn't do anything that I would call revolutionary, but what he does do is make a strong effort to maintain the interest of the viewer. For example, look at the beginning scene in which our group of six play the game for the first time. Watching people play video games when you could be playing them yourself could get awfully boring, but Bell and cinematographer Alejandro Martinez film it with a frenetic energy that actually makes it exciting. But it isn't all people playing games. Since this is a horror movie, after all, Bell makes sure to try his hand at suspense. Sure, he makes sure to throw in a few of the cheap "boo!" scares that seem mandatory in modern horror movies, but he also manages to let things creep up on us. Things slowly pop up in the background only for a few seconds, keeping us wondering just where it might reappear. And while it isn't perfect, Bell's work serves its purpose and gets the job done. It helps that the music composed by John Frizzell is great, too. Frizzell's music is almost too good, sounding like it belongs in a bigger movie than Stay Alive. So I guess it makes this movie better by association?
The screenplay, penned by Bell and Matthew Peterman doesn't really hold up as well. Though its premise is strong and the characters are very likeable, it's ultimately a flawed and at certain points, nonsensical script. While the writers are quick to point out on the DVD audio commentary that they did make some historical inaccuracies in regards to Elizabeth Bathory for the sake of drama, the biggest flaws actually involve the game itself. Though I understand that Bell and Peterman needed something to push the story forward, the idea of the game playing itself seems awfully cheap. What really gets me, however, is the actual logistics of the game. It's played in a PlayStation 2 at the end of the game, but the characters play it on laptop computers for practically the entire movie. So unless the game was released on both PCs and PS2s, it makes me wonder how they've gotten this whole thing working. And how is Miller able to play the game from miles away? I'm not an expert on such things, but I doubt a test version of a yet-to-be-released game can be played online, so barring the other characters making a copy of the game for him and setting up some kind of network between them, I just don't know how to explain it.
However, the cast does the best they can with the material. Jon Foster and Samaire Armstrong aren't bad as the lead characters, but I personally thought the supporting cast was more entertaining. Frankie Muniz and Jimmi Simpson were engaging and funny as the movie's comic relief, while Sophia Bush does a decent job as the perpetually smirking quasi-Goth. Adam Goldberg and Milo Ventimiglia are also good despite having little screen time, and I thought James Haven and Alice Krige whose scenes were cut from the theatrical release and reinstated for the unrated "director's cut" release on DVD were unsettlingly creepy in their roles. Even at their weakest, I thought the cast worked well together, and really sold me on the whole thing. So thumbs up for them.
I doubt Stay Alive will ever be regarded as a classic piece of horror filmmaking. But I do believe it'd make for a fun movie to watch with friends on Halloween when you just want a quick scare. It's harmless entertainment that, though not the most memorable of movies, isn't a bad way to kill an hour and a half. So I'm going to give Stay Alive three stars on my patent-pending Sutton Scale. Now I've got to go make some phone calls to some video game developers, because Stay Alive: The Video Game is a game I want to play.
Final Rating: ***