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SXSW Film Review: ‘Game of Death’

Variety logo Variety 3/14/2017 Dennis Harvey
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Managing to wring some lively variations on the kill-or-be-killed teenage psychodrama pioneered by “Battle Royale” and mainstreamed by “The Hunger Games,” “Game of Death” is more nasty fun than most viewers — at least those past voting age — will want to admit. A feature repackaging of the Quebecois creative team’s same-named web series, it’s a stylish, self-aware exercise in which seven bratty best friends discover the titular board game they’re playing has all-too-literal life-or-death stakes. The film is sure to develop a cult following among viewers in the same general age range as its protagonists. But don’t expect their parents to approve.

“Kill or be killed” is actually the main directive in the instructions that come with the game a group of suburban teens find themselves drawn to during an unchaperoned summer afternoon. That turns out to be bad news for them but good news for us, since before they settle down to play, these horribly crass and jaded brats have already proved exhausting company as they fool around with drugs and sex. Under threat of mortal peril, they grow more relatably human.

The first unpleasant surprise they get is when the game, requiring each to lay a thumb on the board, makes a stinging collective blood-prick. That awakens the central video-screen counter, which reads 24 — supposedly the number of people who must be killed before the game ends. If someone isn’t snuffed every few minutes, the game itself will claim a victim from among the players.

No one takes the rule seriously — until someone experiences an abrupt demise no doubt deliberately reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s 1980 Canadian horror classic “Scanners.” At first the panicked kids assume there’s a sniper about, blaming an elderly neighbor who unwisely comes over to investigate their screams. But when a second central character’s head goes ka-boom all by itself, they realize it’s Game On.

Reactions to this discovery among the rapidly dwindling protagonists run a gamut from homicidal self-preservation to skittish survivor’s guilt, with dueling couples (Sam Earle and Victoria Diamond, Catherine Saindon and Erniel Baez D) eventually defining those two poles. In any case, police have been called, so all must flee the house. With the counter ticking, woe be unto anyone who crosses their path en route to a local medical facility where the tale, and its body count, reach their climax.

As vigorously tasteless as it is in concept and tenor, “Game of Death” actually exercises a certain artful restraint in that most of its mayhem is implied (or only seen in gory aftermath) rather than graphically depicted. There’s a certain witty meta quality to the goings-on  — though their video-game-like structure and imagery may recall Uwe Boll’s “House of the Dead,” not a film commonly given much credit for being tongue-in-cheek.

Montreal-based co-directors Sebastien Landry and Laurence Baz Morais manage enough variation in pacing and design elements that the film hardly seems as thin as its short run-time might lead one to expect. (The screenplay co-written by the directors with Edouard Bond, sports an “adapted by” credit for producer Philip Kalin-Hajdu, who Anglicized the dialogue.)

The film’s playful intent is furthered by some showy, disparately staged gambits: occasional animation and graphics; an arbitrary aspect-ratio shift; and a surreal running gag of underwater nature-documentary excerpts. The original score by Julien Mineau is redolent of ’80s shlock horror. The young performers spotlit here are nothing if not, well, game.

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