Although I can’t go all-in on “Choose or Die,” I will say that there’s a lot to be said for a horror movie with clever twists, a top flight cast and a witty consistency to its conceit.
A vintage game from the “dial up” era of the pre-Internet is picked up, in bootleg form, by a “collector.” Once the tape-source code is downloaded and those unforgettable yellow luminous graphics of MacIntosh/Compac era computing boot up, the game — which promises a huge cash prize to the winner — proceeds to take over the player’s reality.
The lights, the decor, the labels on your beer bottles (“Look Behind You!”) become a part of the “Curs>r” game’s universe, and its puzzle.
And innocent bystanders? They’re just fodder for the game’s choices. Say the collector (Eddie Marsan) has an out of control son (Peter MacHale) and game-hating wife (Kate Fleetwood) who are engaged in one long, never-ending screaming match.
“His tongue, or her ears? Choose or Die!“
And that’s just the opening scene.
The bulk of the story takes place some time after that, after game-designer Isaac (Asa Butterfield) and his working poor ex-classmate Kayla (Iola Evans) stumble into “Curs>r” and Kayla becomes its next player, facing one “Sophie’s Choice” after another.
The not-really-a-couple survive long enough to break down the game, investigate its origins and seek the usual absurd horror movie “explanations” for what’s going on as they face their fate — one horrific dilemma after another.
It’s a tale largely dictated by formula, and while the ugly choices themselves are grim and gruesomely novel, this isn’t a horror film you dig into for its surprises.
But that “consistency of concept” hook is a hoot. The ’80s vintage game is voiced by none other than Robert Englund himself, Mr. Freddy Krueger reminding players that “Reality…is CURSED.”
Collector Hal is obsessed with all things ’80s, to the irritation of his family. But young Isaac drives a butt-ugly ’80s vintage Fox Body Mustang. And then when and Kayla set off on their quest, their journey is tracked, early ’80s driving video game graphic style.
One character is trapped inside an apartment, pleading for help from another via phone as the would-be helper sees the victim being stalked through a PacMan graphic maze.
The Liam Howlett score isn’t just shrieking strings and horror jolts, but electronic beeps and bleeps and blurts.
“Choose or Die” is too perfunctory and too short to get into the meat of ’80s manias, and spends entirely too much time explaining how “Curs>r” came to life.
The frights here lean more toward excruciating bits of torture — this victim eating glass, that one facing a face full of syringes — than suspense, though there are a couple of decent dollops of that, too.
If one was looking for formulaic horror destined to turn into a Netflix film franchise, this might be it. And shortcomings aside, that wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, profanity, suggestions of drug abuse
Cast: Iola Evans, Asa Butterfield, Kate Fleetwood, Ryan Gage, Joe Bolland and Eddie Marsan, featuring the voice of Robert Englund.
Credits: Directed by Toby Meakins, scripted by Simon Allen. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:25