31 Days of Horror: Stay Alive

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I love Stay Alive. I’ve loved it since I saw it in the theater in 2006.  It’s an utterly ludicrous tale of cursed video games and historically inaccurate murder atrocities, nerd cultural references and history’s worst character names. The tagline tells you everything you need to know about the central plot: you die in the game, you die for real. Starring a baffling collection of gamer stereotypes and some PS3-grade CGI, it’s an amazing, beautiful almost-thing, and I want to share it with you.

I’m not generally a fan of bad movies. I’m incapable of enjoying Birdemic or The Room on their own “merits,” and I need the company of robot silhouettes to make it through something like Manos: the Hands of Fate. I hate incompetence, but I love camp and absurdity. I like insane premises that strain credulity more and more as they develop. If a movie alternates between effective use of genre tropes and hamfisted exaggeration of them, we’re off to a good start. Somebody has to have cared about the thing, somebody has to have thought about it, even if the conclusions they came to are utterly insane.

Stay Alive is well shot and cunningly edited. The fictional video game at its core is elegant and appealing. You’ll find many positive fan reviews expressing a desire to play it, despite the associated risk of being brutally ghostmurdered.  Speaking of fans, Stay Alive has a 9% critic rating and a 55% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes – and while most movies have substantial differences between critics and audiences, this one is particularly impressive.  RT no longer has a readily-available “worst reviewed movies” list, but I clicked through several dozen horror movies in the 5-15% range, and none of them beat Stay Alive’s audience score. Somehow, I feel vindicated by that. Sadly, the movie isn’t on Netflix anymore, or any of the other major streaming services.  You can rent or buy it on Amazon or you can paw through bargain bins and hope to get lucky. Note that two versions exist: a PG13 theatrical release and an unrated director’s cut. I am one of the rare fans who prefers the theatrical release, at least for your first viewing. The director’s cut contains more backstory and more explicit gore, but the exposition is tediously delivered, and the pacing of some of the scenes is noticeably worse. I watched both last weekend, and the lost backstory only enhances the movie’s already bonkers premise.

In strict adherence to ideal horror movie viewing protocol, I waited until midnight and turned down the lights in my living room before I popped the DVD into my cutting-edge PS2 and hit play. I hadn’t watched it for a few years, would it hold up?

Yes. It’s still a bad movie, and it’s still a great movie.

The dull-as dishwater main characters are still the worst part: a manic pixie dreamgirl stereotype whose only personality traits are “takes Polaroids” and “owns a van,” and a dude who is defined solely by his love of games and hatred of fire. The rest of the cast are misguided, off-kilter stereotypes but they’re entertaining stereotypes. If the guys behind this movie had realized they were making a comedy earlier in the production, we could have had a horror classic on our hands. Instead we have a weird dumb lovable hodgepodge. Act one is legitimately scary, but by act three the movie has completed its transformation an utterly absurd action thriller about ghost witches, inter-dimensional inventory systems, and murder by horse-drawn carriage.

If you’re in the mood for a movie that combines legitimate PG13 spookiness with hilariously nonsensical acting and writing choices, Stay Alive is for you.

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