Director: Sebastien Landry, Laurence Baz Morais
Writer: Sebastien Landry, Laurence Baz Morais, Edouard Bond
Producer: Pierre-Alexandre Bouchard, Mathias Bernard, Philip Kalin-Hajdu
Stars: Sam Earle, Victoria Diamond, Emelia Hellman, Catherine Saindon, Erniel Baez D, Nick Serino, Thomas Vallieres
A cursed board game forces seven teenagers to commit 24 murders with the penalty that their heads will explode if they don’t.
“Game of Death” is immediately alienating. The film’s first line comes from sunbathing teen Beth in big sunglasses sending her brother the video message, “hey bro, Ashley wants to f*ck you, get the f*ck over here.” Cut to Beth’s brother Tom buck naked, masturbating on his bed.
Then it’s back poolside as Ashley finishes up her round of ‘F*ck, Marry, Kill’ by telling Mary-Ann she’d marry Kenny. Kenny, a skinny white kid with enough gold chains on his neck to rival any rapper, introduces himself with a hand puppet who says, “I smoke crack. I’m metro with the homeless people.”
Matt is pissed when his new tattoo gets wets in the pool, though the inconvenience is inconsequential after Matt tells Ashley, “sit on my face” and she does. In the meantime, pizza delivery boy Tyler shows up with a tackle box full of drugs while a perverted neighbor watering his lawn puts a finger on either side of his lips and flicks his tongue in Beth’s direction.
I can’t come up with a concrete conclusion as to what directors Sebastien Landry and Laurence Baz Morais intend to establish with this millennial madness, which culminates in Beth giving her brother Tom a seductive lap dance. Maybe this sleazy septet is supposed to be seen as an insufferable circle late on payment for the crimes of privilege and ennui, in which case their mission is more than accomplished.
It’s too bad the movie, an eight-episode digital series cut into a breezy 70-minute feature, spends nine of those minutes having irritating introductions taint the first bite with a bad taste. Because once “Game of Death” finally gets its premise off the ground, it turns into a wickedly gruesome ride that is miles more entertaining than its obnoxious opening.
Under a pile of old toys in a closet, the seven friends find a dusty board game and decide to play. Each person places a finger on one of eight skulls around the ‘Game of Death’ board and they are unexpectedly pricked. Blood collects somewhere in the center as Matt reads instructions aloud. The players have committed to killing 24 people. If a countdown expires without a murder, one of them dies. The game can only end if all seven of them are executed or the counter reaches zero.
Everyone thinks the “kill or be killed” claim is a crock until one of their heads suddenly explodes. The timer resets and it isn’t much longer before a second player’s skull balloons and blows. Now the group realizes ‘Game of Death’ is the real deal and they must decide what they are willing to do to survive.
The film’s official synopsis describes it as “Jumanji” meets “Natural Born Killers.” I’ll second that while adding “Game of Death” is reminiscent of “Beyond the Gates” (review here) mixed with the absurdist bloodletting of “Turbo Kid” (review here) and then given an irreverent makeover with an arthouse crime thriller tone.
“Game of Death” tries hard to have an artful edge. Its cinematographer goes by ‘SPG.’ Its editor is credited as ‘OG.’ Production design decorates sets with vintage VHS tapes, retro game consoles, and Trivial Pursuit boxes, even though establishing a specific era doesn’t appear to be on the agenda. All of this effort to fabricate style is largely overshot when the setup and crazy death FX amp up atmosphere organically.
“Game of Death’s” signature is its outrageous gore. After the first head explodes, characters are covered in crimson through the end credits and insanity only increases from there.
Much of the movie is played straight, with the teens existing in a slightly sideways reality. The young actors embody caricature personalities, but that’s the only thing making them funny in and of themselves. Other than a park ranger providing comic relief, and inherent silliness of certain situations, the people aren’t really presented for overt laughs, which purposefully positions exaggerated explosions of suddenly bursting bodies to play as blackly comic shocks.
Seven out of ten stars errs on the generous side of scoring for a movie that doesn’t hit a consistent vibe, is largely juvenile, and often appears rough around the edges. Yet after an awkward start, enough of the shock entertainment spirit bubbles up for a fun factor in keeping with “Game of Death’s” drunken midnight movie aesthetic. The film might not be technically impressive, aside from its juiced effects of course, but its unapologetic attitude about extreme gore takes a walk on the wild side that satisfies in a slightly sick way.
Review Score: 70