STAY ALIVE (2006)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on March 24, 2016, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


The fictitious video game that gives Stay Alive its title looks like it would be a fun one to play, combining the creepy atmosphere of Silent Hill with the blow-away-ghouls action of Resident Evil. I haven’t yet seen the cinematic incarnation of Silent Hill and thus don’t know how Stay Alive compares (though based on the Silent trailer that played before Alive when I caught it, the films have at least one scene in common), but the new movie is comparable to the first Evil feature in that it captures some of the jumpy allure of a horror game, but doesn’t have a compelling or consistent enough story to succeed as a feature-film experience.

The film opens promisingly, setting up the premise already established in the ads: If your Stay Alive cyber-alter ego suffers a horrible fate, you die in real life, in the same manner. The first victim is Loomis, played by Cursed’s Milo Ventimiglia in the Drew Barrymore role, who gets his shortly after beta-testing the Stay Alive game in his New Orleans home (the city’s antediluvian atmosphere provides effective counterpoint to the techno-spawned mayhem). His computer-happy pals, led by Hutch MacNeil (Jon Foster), decide to pay tribute to their fallen friend by indulging in some multiplayer action, along with Hutch’s closet-gamer boss (Adam Goldberg, well-cast in a funny extended cameo). Needless to say, what they wind up playing is Loomis’ copy of Stay Alive, in which participants explore and battle their way through the Southern plantation of notorious real-life Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who murdered hundreds of girls and bathed in their blood in an attempt to stay youthful and beautiful.

Cue the shedding of more young blood, though the Countess never does get around to bathing in it. Indeed, while much is made of the game’s connection to Bathory’s true story, as related by Goth chick October (Sophia Bush), any true scholar of the Blood Countess will know that she did all her dirty work in Europe, not the Big Easy. For that matter, given all the fearsome buildup, the grisly punchlines feel muted, no doubt in the service of attaining a PG-13 rating. Something tells me that if a horse-drawn carriage, even a ghostly one, were to run down a young man with enough force to kill him, he’d wind up with more than a large red smear across his face.

Director William Brent Bell is more successful at raising the hackles with freaky imagery and grotesque or shadowy characters creeping in from odd corners of the screen. He and his co-scripter Matthew Peterman also do a decent job establishing the protagonists’ outsider milieu and behavior. As they become increasingly caught in Bathory’s web, though, they become the usual hapless victims-to-be, given to wandering off through spooky buildings they really shouldn’t, as well as fluctuating levels of comprehension or disbelief of the bizarre goings-on. Right after Hutch has tried to convince the others that the video game is causing real-life bloodshed, for example, he completely pooh-poohs October’s notion that the ancient Countess’ still-living spirit might be responsible.

Still, even after the movie has defeated any attempt to take it seriously, it’s when it has parked itself in schlock gear that it has some of the most fun with its premise. Once the group has arrived at Bathory’s plantation and foolishly separated, and heroine Abigail (Samaire Armstrong) has become trapped and terrorized in an upstairs bedroom, Hutch gets remote instructions on how to find her from tech nerd Swink (Frankie Muniz), who guides him by tracking through the mansion in the game realm. The sequence doesn’t make a lot of sense (how come Hutch can’t follow Abigail’s screams himself, and how does Swink know which room she’s stuck in?), but it has goofy energy, and got a real rise out of the teens in the audience. They also responded enthusiastically when Swink is subsequently attacked by the Countess even though he hasn’t been dispatched in the game, and protests, “Bitch, this isn’t fair! I’m not dead yet!” A line like that helps make up for others like October’s lament, “Somebody just ran down my brother in a horse-drawn carriage—I want to find out who it is, and hurt them.”

The climax is a letdown, though, as Hutch confronts both the Countess and echoes of a childhood trauma that’s only established so he can have a trauma to overcome at the climax (as if facing a supernatural villainess who’s slaughtered his friends isn’t enough), yet the action feels rushed and truncated. That’s a recurring problem in the movie, which runs only 78 minutes minus credits, and barrels over any number of plausibility issues in the interest of maintaining a faster pace. The impression is that either the filmmakers or (more likely) the studio felt that the only important issue with Stay Alive was that the audience stay awake.

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