Mixing a bit of 1980s nostalgia and a dash of modern-day scary, Choose or Die centers on a found survival horror game from the ’80s, which is made up entirely of text and questions for the player with two possible directions they may go when faced with a choice. It’s essentially a choose-your-own-adventure game, but even more boring. The film opens with a middle-aged man named Hal (Eddie Marsan) playing the game while locked up in his room, with his wife Laura (Kate Fleetwood) and young son waiting for him to stop being a loser and join them for dinner. But each choice Hal is given is about his family, and every time he makes a choice, that choice manifests itself in reality, including one that involves cutting out his son’s tongue or his wife’s ear. Each choice is followed up by the same directive to “Choose or Die,” so one simply must choose.
Jumping ahead in time, we meet Kayla (Iola Evans), who lives in a dangerous part of town with her drug-addicted mother Thea (Angela Griffin). Her best friend is a talented programmer named Isaac (Asa Butterfield), who also has a bit of a crush on her. Somehow, Kayla stumbles upon this ancient game by calling a phone number (with the recorded voice of Robert Englund on an answering machine), which explains the rules and offers anyone who can finish the game a cash prize of $100,000. With Kayla and her mother desperate for money, she decides it’s worth playing, even if the prize money is long gone. She’s given a succession of increasingly terrifying choices, some of which involve the death of people she knows. She and Isaac investigate the beginnings of the game, where (geographically) it originates, and whether they actually get the money if they win.
The most interesting thing about Choose of Die is the central relationship between Isaac and Kayla. Kayla is a fully layered person with a dark family history (involving a dead younger brother that adds an infinite amount of guilt to her life), and Isaac just likes her so much, partly because she’s a talented programmer, but also because she’s a quality human being.
Despite running the smoke machine at full blast in a couple of scenes, the movie isn’t really that scary, although I’ll give it points for atmosphere. Its real strengths are its characters, but aside from the leads, even they aren’t that compelling. Marsan is a gifted performer, but even he can’t breathe much life into his role here. The film is a mystery at heart, with our young heroes trying to figure out how to stop this cursed game or perhaps at least put the curse on someone who deserves it. The film comes courtesy of first-time director Toby Meakins and writer Simon Allen, and it’s actually a decent idea for a horror film, especially in the way the filmmakers use the 1980s video game/home computer motifs occasionally. It’s a fun way to kill less than 90 minutes.
The game predictably turns its attentions toward building a game where Kayla doesn’t have other people as her characters, but instead casts herself in this life or death game. And the way she handles herself and takes care of the true villain in her life and the life of her family is pretty spectacular. But it’s also too little too late. I see promise in this filmmaker, but Choose or Die is something of a disappointing creepy exercise.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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