There are few things more fun or exhilarating than a mindless blood bath of a horror film. It’s a weird alchemy that creates a story lacking in compelling narrative or characters, but has such an excess of violence and moxie that it spills over from horror into comedy of sorts. I qualify that because what I mean is not a horror comedy, but an entirely different kind of beast; one which, when done right, is similarly impressive in its chimeric charms. No, this film has no jokes, no winks, and no underlying commentary. It is nothing but an explosion of blood and cruelty, but in that cruel exercise hits a tone that spills over into fun. Not everyone gets it right, but when a film hits that special place, it’s a unique joy known only to true horror fans.
Game of Death is not that movie.
It wants to be so hard; an upbeat and yet dark narrative around a board game one can only win through murder, and if one refuses to play, the game makes your head explode. Rather than take you on that magical journey, Game of Death does everything wrong. Yes, there is a parade of exploding heads and a literal wave of blood across the screen. The effects are impressive, and some of the beats to nail that “humorously horrible” sweet spot. Yet most of the film feels ill-conceived, and its lack of any compelling characters save one (played by the worst actor in the production) means Game of Death never works.
The concept is actually really sharp: an interesting group of young folks are having a party. Immediately, we are shown the style of the film, mixing in the personal cell phone perspective of an app like Snapchat as well as a removed camera angle. These folks are not your average, basic teens, but have a few weird bits and pieces about them, including a possibly (make that definitely) incestuous relationship. As these young people party and make out, they find a board game in this house rental called “Game of Death.” Intrigued, they decide to play, and are immediately concerned when the game stabs each of their fingers and begins a countdown. Still, they ignore this strange game in favor of more drinking until, rather unceremoniously, one of their heads explodes.
This could be the start to something fun and ridiculous, or it could be the start to something serious and filled with meaning. There is potential either way, as these young folks decide how willing they are to murder for their own survival, and as those murders get more and more ridiculous. The directing and editing lends itself to experimentation. There are animated sequences, incredible digital work, and an interesting use of aspect ratio. Throughout the movie, the camera shifts and moves, and the editing and sound design are all super tight. There is some real skill here, a kind of music video-inspired mania, that makes the film more visually interesting. The amount of talent being thrown at the screen should be impressive, yet the narrative and performance failure are so strong, that all that skill seems superfluous.; a bunch of stylistic tricks amounting to nothing, in service of nothing, not even a good laugh.
It’s not just that the film is dumb, though that doesn’t help at all. The violence in the film is neither witty nor creative, other than the head explosions themselves, the charms of which are of course limited. The gore is competent, but not fun, and the movie never really attempts to have the serious conversation it could be having. The performances do not help, though that might be unfair, as each character is severely limited, written within a hair of non-existence. The most charismatically written character, the incestuous brother Tom, is played by Sam Earle, basically a null point of charisma. While none of the other performances are particularly compelling, they are also not given that much to do, in order to wring something worth caring about our of their character.
So, Game of Death, above all else, feels like a wasted opportunity. It could have been a dark meditation on the value or lack thereof regarding human life, or it could have been an over-the-top splatter fest. It never really becomes either, though at moments it flirts with both ideas. Without a character that I found compelling enough to care about, I couldn’t exactly get caught up on the tension around the murderous game. Without any moment of wit or insight or creativity regarding the violence, the film never spilled over into fun and crazy. You can have a film without creative gore, without compelling characters, without jokes, without fear, and without deep insight. A film with none of these things though might just fall flat, as Game of Death did for me.