This slightly self-aware thriller takes its lead from The Ring and almost works, right until the ending pretty much throws out everything the story had going for it.
Hutch MacNeil (Jon Foster) discovers an underground (read: beta test) video game among the things left over from a friend found dead in his home. As it turns out, his friend and others in the house at that time were playing the horror video gam just before they died, and eerily died in real life exactly as they had in the game. Along with a mysterious girl (Samaire Armstrong), a game geek named Swink Sylvania (Frankie Muniz), and a goth chick named October (Sophia Bush), the remaining survivors who read aloud the game’s opening titles must solve the mystery and finish the game both in the computer and real life, but to do that they must first “stay alive.”
What’s both sad and frustrating was that the film had a clever premise: if you don’t finish playing the game, the game continues playing and finishes you (kinda like Jumanji and Zathura, but with blood, corpses, and hi-def). As the lines between the real and virtual world become blurred, the script gives in to lines like, “B*tch, that’s cheating… I’m not even dead yet!” The villain (or subject of the horror) has a complete backstory, lair, and everything, evens cursed little servants to bring her victims. Even the game itself in the film, “Stay Alive,” looks like a lot of horrific fun.
Then, inexplicably, all the hints and psuedo-coolness that was set up previously goes right out the highest tower window. Help turns up where it shouldn’t, people who should be more than they seem aren’t, and the ending is just, well, pathetic. Then we’re treated to the obligatory, “But wait! It ain’t over yet!” epilogue which merely serves to set up a sequel without committing the current (read: surviving) cast. With all the gamer product endorsements (Alienware, anyone? PS2, please?), you’d think they could afford someone to write a better ending for a decent idea.
In the end, you can’t help but think that the Scooby gang would have had an easier time solving this mystery (and the villain revealed as the haunted amusement park owner would have been a better ending). Since this mid-to-low-budget commitment will obviously incur a sequel, here’s a bit of free advise about video games: the boss monster at the end of the game is supposed to kick butt, and when it dies it should take everything with it, lair and all.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)