Stay Alive (2006) Review

Stay Alive Poster

Stay Alive was directed by William Brent Bell (The Devil Inside, Orphan: First Kill), written by Bell and Matthew Peterman (Wer, Drone), and stars Jon Foster (18 & Over, Rampart), Samaire Armstrong (Terror on the Prairie, The O.C.), Jimmi Simpson (Westworld, Night of the Animated Dead), Sophia Bush (Good Sam, One Tree Hill), Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle, Pizza Man), Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Brown Sugar), Rio Hackford (Swingers, Deal), and Adam Goldberg (The Equalizer TV series, Miss Nobody). It follows a group of young adults as they search a video game for clues to the reason several of their friends were killed in mysterious ways.

The Plot: Plenty have tried to adapt a horror video game to the big screen; plenty have failed the task, but few try to reverse engineer the experience of the gameplay and stretch it out to feature length. It’s no wonder since video game stories are best told in their native format which allows as long or as little time as needed to tell a fleshed-out tale, whereas movies, like Stay Alive, cannot.

His friend has just played a game called “Stay Alive,” and gets an invite to come over and do the same, but what Hutch (Foster) wasn’t told is that his friend was killed in-game. Naturally, he carries on like normal, going to work for Miller (Goldberg) until he’s told that his friend has been killed. At the funeral, he meets Abigail (Armstrong), a friend of his friend, who will obviously be brought into the fray later. With friends Phineus (Simpson), October (Bush), and Swink (Muniz), along with Abigail and Miller, Hutch decides to try the game his friend died while playing.

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There’s not much setup here, with the movie lurching into gameplay in the first 13 minutes, forgoing interested parties, and criminal analysis until later in a poor attempt at dramatic irony. Bell and Peterman do have one interesting plot concession: that the characters must figure out an in-game (and real-life) mystery if they hope to survive. Before long, Miller dies in-game at the hands of Elizabeth Bathory, and not long after that, dies himself. Detectives Thibodeaux (Pierce) and King (Hackford) catch onto the pattern in another generic choice and try their hands at figuring out the mystery while young adults’ numbers begin to dwindle alongside the cops’ screentime.

Generic scenes of investigating the history within the fiction, the cops assuming Hutch was responsible, and so forth all make up Stay Alive’s plot. It’s a pastiche of almost every narrative trope the 2000s had to offer, hanging onto dear life using video games as a novelty.

The Characters: Like the decade that had popularized slashers, the 2000s didn’t have many horror movies that took care of personalities or motivations. Bell’s feature certifies the rule instead of becoming an exception, doing little to humanize the dead men walking.

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Hutch is a regular guy; a blue-collar worker who’s just getting by, using the occasional sit down to play video games. He worked for Miller as a clerk. What exactly he filed for Miller or what the company even does is left unanswered, as are the rest of the traits to the lead except for his justified fear of fire. Miller had more personality in less time, with a friendly snark to his speech, lenience toward his employees, and a love of gaming making up his short appearance. Despite some talent in the cast like Bush, Simpson, and Muniz, Goldberg, a strong character actor, is the only one to give a decent performance.

It’s good to have visual identifiers for different characters, but Stay Alive only has those to work with, as the other assorted gamers are only characterized by their looks. Abigail is the new addition to the friend group, which just means exposition dumps, Phineus is the socially absent-minded type-b personality, October is the biting goth, and Swink is a nerd. Their interactions are generic and a little hard to believe because their traits, without further development, don’t seem like a good mix.

During this period in cinema, writers and directors opted to make audiences dislike characters to make kills feel gratifying; a choice in contrast to the (generally) more amiable leads in the 80s. Here, there’s neither of the two since Stay Alive’s familiarity only begets apathy.

The Horror: Releasing at the peak of the first survival-horror video game boom didn’t do much for Stay Alive, as it rarely capitalizes on the suspense of its inspirations, but that isn’t to say it can’t occasionally come up with a gruesome death or unsettling setpiece.

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Loomis’s (of course his name was Loomis) death in the opening of the movie doesn’t set a high bar for what’s to come, even using the old trope of dying in a game equating to dying in reality. His character wanders the halls while having visions of children before being jumped at by Bathory and hanged from a chandelier; it’s not that scary since the ensuing scene isn’t filmed especially well and relies way too much on one stock sound effect as its weapon of horror, but the deaths that follow are at least executed well.

Bell follows the rulebook of the era for the time being, with characters seeing doors close on their own and the audience getting lazily jumpscared by demonic-looking children that only we get to see. Beyond basic tactics like this, the script doesn’t raise hairs until it starts to alter the characters’ reality, like when Phineus crashes his car after seeing something that wasn’t there, telling himself that none of it is real while the world around him starts to fog up around him. It seems like a rule-breaking scene, but it instead introduces a necessary new element, even if it does backpedal on an admission.

Changing perceptions of reality as a byproduct of playing the game goes out the window just as it’s introduced, as Stay Alive soon reveals that Bathory’s ghost is real and can, of course, be expelled via a specific series of actions. With that said reveal, the movie moves back onto a set course and never tries again to deviate, content with the same old scares and atmosphere.

The Technics: Bell has never been a strong director, just as Disney, yes that Disney has never been interested in horror. With a connection to the media giant, money was bound to be spent and a movie passably made.

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Smoke machines, ambient terror, and outrageous kills are all part of the genre mixture but Stay Alive doesn’t have any of them for much of its runtime. Probably at the behest of the distributor, the deaths of the victims are clearly cut-down versions of the original vision, despite the effort being on display during their quick inclusions. Ambiance isn’t accounted for either, with the movie’s generic lighting techniques and sound design sapping what little dread it could come up with.

Crucially, the titular video game looks like a survival-horror game to come out during the early to mid-2000s, with foggy surroundings, supernatural overtones, and scripted scares. It’s no Silent Hill (the game, not the movie) but it doesn’t look overly cheap like the games in almost every other movie that doesn’t license rights to one. The same can be said about the reality of the movie during its time spent in the real world; it’s an okay movie, adequately paced, and runs on a small few good ideas.

Stay Alive was out at the right time, but it wasn’t made in the right hands. It recycles genre trappings without much to lean on beyond the novelty of the film industry’s weak grasp on horror games. Scares are few and far between but it’s not an abject failure. Just watch a YouTube let’s play series.

Stay Alive is currently available on DVD and Digital platforms. Bell has also indicated there has recently been discussion of a sequel. And while you wait for that, FilmTagger can suggest a few similar films.

Where to watch Stay Alive
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