Gaming and horror should go hand in hand—after all, the very idea of a video game that controls aspects of one’s daily life is a scary notion simply in concept alone. Why is it then that, to date, the only case of a video game that kills the player is 2006’s underrated-but-flawed Stay Alive? 1994’s Brainscan maybe counts too, though the concept is a little different. A whopping sixteen years after Stay Alive attempted to capitalize on this novel idea, the debut film from director Toby Meakins, Choose or Die, brings the concept back from the dead in a major way. Starring Iola Evans in her first feature film, and Asa Butterfield (Netflix’s Sex Education, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), Choose or Die is like a deliciously horrifying mixture of Saw, Final Destination, and Jumanji. A lower body count refuses to put a stopper on this thrilling, gnarly horror gem.
Haven’t you heard of CURS>R? This obscure 1984 survival game promises a major $125,000 grand prize, if only one can last five days! In spite of this claim, one of our leads in Choose or Die posits that there are tons of unclaimed prizes from retro games. After aimless and broke dropout Kayla (Evans) discovers CURS>R amongst a shipment of junk at the apartment of her nerdy game-designer bestie, Isaac (Butterfield), she calls the prize hotline with Isaac immediately. It appears to still have a working phone number, requiring a four-digit prize code and the ominous message that “reality is cursed,” not to mention that it carries the pedigree of horror legend Robert Englund himself! The adoration for 80s pop culture is evident from an early scene where one can see a stylish retro poster for the original Nightmare on Elm Street framed on a wall.
This prize could mean everything for Kayla. Her brother has recently died, and her mom is deep in the throes of drug addiction. They live in the projects in New York, and Kayla cannot seem to find a job doing anything beyond floor-scrubbing janitorial work night in and night out. With this in mind, Kayla becomes committed to accessing the game. When she finally gets it to boot up, CURS>R knows she is in a tavern. It immediately toys with Kayla by using her surroundings to present a warped version of reality. For five subsequent days, Kayla will have no choice but to play the game not for money, but for her very life.
The film could just as easily have been called CURS>R, but Choose or Die definitely teases an ominous sort of scenario. The title could furthermore stand as a metaphor for Kayla’s mother’s addiction, and choosing to take the pills over living her actual life. What Choose or Die really accomplishes in name alone is to clue in the audience that the stakes will be high. There is no escaping this game once one begins, similar to Jumanji’s whole schtick in which the player must finish the entire game, or suffer dire consequences.
The script from writers Simon Allen, Toby Meakins, and Matthew James Wilkinson very wisely establishes stakes during the opening scene alone. Rather than a gory, explosive death, we glimpse immediately how sick and twisted this tale will be. The opening credits take the physical torment one step further, reminding careful viewers that the game’s previous player made copies of the tape so that he could live in peace with his family. In terms of the actual red stuff, blood aplenty is on the menu here—chopped-off tongues, stab wounds, glass-crunching madness, self-harm, and stomach-turning regurgitation are among the various torture methods of CURS>R. Those with weaker stomachs, or opposed to the gorier subset of horror flavor, need not apply.
Choose or Die would not be nearly as effective without an absolutely bonkers video game-gone-wrong style score from composer Liam Howlett. The music buoys each moment with intensity, grounded by effective sound mixing that instantly put me on edge. The soundtrack choices are cherry-picked excellence too, including Run-D.M.C. and Cigarettes After Sex. Equally as effective are the roster of actors chosen to fill their respective roles. Butterfield and Evans essentially must carry the film squarely on their shoulders, as their characters work to solve the mystery and outsmart the video game like Rachel and Noah trying to resolve Samara’s trauma and beat the ticking-clock element of the cursed videotape in 2002’s iteration of The Ring. Butterfield’s Isaac may be too smart for his own good, relying on a sort of real-life cheat code to potentially carry them to victory. Kayla meanwhile is desperate to save her mother and outsmart the game that follows her like the prowling, sexually suggestive eyes of her mom’s drug dealer, Luke.
Visually speaking, director Toby Meakins mixes a variety of unique styles, specifically in portraying the video game world. The blending of mediums keeps Choose or Die feeling fresh for the entirety of its brisk runtime of just under an hour and a half. When the mythology is finally unraveled, it is like a satisfying click of the pieces interlocking perfectly. Unsurprisingly, Netflix seems to leave things open for a sequel, should this movie see success. After what was presented, a plethora of possibilities jump out at me almost immediately, but I will leave it up to the filmmaking team to craft something as worthy as the audience’s first time with CURS>R. Choose or Die is sublime video game survival horror at its finest.
Choose or Die cautions only the worthy to press play when it debuts exclusively to Netflix on Friday, April 15th.