Directed by Toby Meakins – Screenplay by Simon Allen.
This is the kind of film that, not too long ago, would’ve been the kind of horror picture that could be released in theaters and earned quite a bit of money, like Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare, which this film reminded me of at times. Who knows, maybe it could’ve even done that right now in a post-lockdown America. We will never know because instead of being released theatrically this nostalgic tech-focused horror film was released without much fanfare on Netflix on April 15th. If you like those kinds of gimmicky horror films, then this might be the kind of film that you’d like to put on. But, with that having been said, I cannot recommend this fairly disposable horror feature, in spite of its relatively short 84-minute runtime.
In Choose or Die, we follow Kayla (played by Iola Evans), whose mother has been so crippled by grief that she has become a drug addict. After visiting her tech-geeky friend, Isaac (played by Asa Butterfield), her life is upended, as she suddenly finds herself the player of a cursed video game. ‘Choose or Die’ is not just the name of the film, it is also the prompt that the aforementioned retro text command-focused video game asks of its players. Initially, the game sounds simple enough. Complete enough levels and the player will win a prize. But the prompts and the players’ answers can alter reality and the video game in question is a bit of a trickster, as its interpretation of ‘cleaning up’ broken glass will end in a bloody mess.
Gimmicky and video game-like, Choose or Die has many obvious inspirations. The fact that it warps reality makes it easy to think o films like Jumanji or th aforementioned Truth or Dare, whereas the game’s prompts reminded me more of the more realistic films like the horror franchise Saw or even Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s techno-thriller Nerve, a tiny bit. Heck, it even reminded me of the Escape Room horror films. However, the only one of these films that Choose or Die is evenly remotely at the same level as is Truth or Dare, which I really didn’t enjoy.
Iola Evans, a relative newcomer, is actually surprisingly solid in what is her first film leading role. Unfortunately, the film around her doesn’t have the same effect or commitment that she has. On paper, her and Butterfield should be a solid duo for this film, but I don’t think they had a good enough script to make us trust in their relationship. Instead, the film’s subplots are quite ineffective, and, as a result, in spite of the light runtime, the film becomes quite dull and feels longer than it is.
Robert Englund’s vocal cameo is exciting but it doesn’t lead to all that much, and Eddie Marsan, who is the first person we see play the game, isn’t in it all that much either (and when his character finally returns, you are likely to have checked out of the film entirely, as it starts to take itself too seriously). The subplot involving Kayla’s grief-stricken family had some potential, but I thought it was undermined by the poorly written character that Ryan Gage plays (an abusive dealer), as well as by how silly one of the lengthy horror sequences plays out (this entire sequence is seen through a very silly 8-bit video game maze).
That aforementioned 8-bit maze is, admittedly, quite inventive, but it’s more silly than it is scary, and, furthermore, I thought the entire film was light on scares. I think the most effective scene in the entire film is one that has been featured in the trailer for the film, in which we see a waitress swallowing glass. Again, this scene works really well thanks to close-ups and solid sound design that made me want to look away, but it’s the only sequence that I thought was an effective horror sequence, which I think is a huge problem for such a gimmicky horror film. Halfway through the film, there is an extended sequence featuring Butterfield and Evans, but here the light budget starts to show as the sequence is reliant on smoke and red lighting, which really didn’t do much for it.
The film is also reliant on a lot of 80s nostalgia, but I don’t think the film overdoes it. To add to that, I think it’s fair to say that some of the inventiveness (including the 8-bit maze) makes it feel fresher than Truth or Dare. But seeing character’s glitch or being rewound is not much more than a decent trick that the film has up its sleeves. And once the film inevitably tries to explain its reality warping far-fetched premise, I just began to stop caring about what happened in it. So much so that I ended up rolling my eyes at the last line in the film. It starts off alright, but the more the premise is explored (sometimes it’s better to just not explain the absurd gimmicky premises), the more I lost interest, as the third act was fumbled.
Light on scares and surprisingly dull, Choose or Die is unlikely to become a breakout hit on Netflix. For horror fans, it might be fun to check out because of its obvious inspirations (and Englund’s vocal cameo) and its gimmicky pemise (which is better on paper than it is executed), but I really can’t recommend this one.
3.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.