Although the trend of psychological dramas that cunningly smuggle horror themes remains far from ended, Netflix’s latest Choose or Die (2022) proves it’s not an easy combination to pull off. Sometimes, filmmakers are just better off being less ambitious. Or not making a film at all.
Naturally, the temptation to weave technological novelties into the canvas of a horror film grows due to the popularity of shows such as Black Mirror. There are a few reasons for that. One is that the more tech-savvy generations are likely to feel prompted to see a film that aims at scaring them with their everyday bread. Netflix delved into this area a few times before, with one stand-out gem Cam (2018) about the malefic spirits haunting a cam girl. Other than that, the killer-app, killer-game, or other killer-tech flicks were sad examples of the ubiquitous ineptitude of filmmakers to excavate the scare factor from that subject matter. The recent flood of those B-movies schlocks – Friend Request (2016), Smiley (2016), or Bedevilled (2016) made in just one year – perpetuated that phenomenon.
In Choose or Die (2022), directed by Toby Meakins, the devil’s tool takes the form of an obscure video game entitled Curs>r. More seasoned horror fans might recall such a concept from another shoddy picture Stay Alive (2006). Although lost in the depths of the growing gaming industry of the 80s, the retro-style game finds its way into the hands of a mid-aged father, Hal (Eddie Marsan). Isolated cozily in his man-cave when a fight between his wife and son breaks out, Hal presses play and soon learns that Curs>r lets him choose to end the quarrel by hurting either of his loved ones.
Perhaps the prologue doesn’t deliver the Hitchcockian beginning, but Meakins makes up for the thrills later on. Meakins cuts to a downtrodden teenager Kayla (Iola Evans), whose life ain’t a bed of roses. Barely making ends meet, with a crackhead mother to take care of, Kayla wishes to get out of the rabbit hole by learning how to write code under the keen eye of her friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield). Isaac also owns a copy of the game, and since the winner’s supposed to gain a big prize for completing it, Kayla decides to take on the challenge. Horrors kick in right away, in a gory scene in which an unlucky waitress stuffs her mouth with shattered glass.
One could argue that Choose or Die (2022) upgrades The Ring (1998) with the commodity of choice – instead of certain death in seven days, the players do have some kind of control. Sadly though, having more freedom of that kind doesn’t benefit the movie at all. Instead of exploring the intricacies of such moral ambiguity, Choose or Die (2022) becomes a downwards-sloping line that ends with a calamitous finale.
One key factor that concatenates all the great psychological horror films is the drama substance at their core. Hence Rosemary’s Baby (…) depicted the frights of being a mother through the means of horror; grief fueled the mental breakdown of the Toni Collette’s character in Hereditary (2018); and so on. When it comes to Choose or Die (2022), Meakins has the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Kayla’s bullied by an over-the-top dealer Lance, and the main trauma the writers came up with is the tragic accident of her deceased brother. None of these two ideas really connect with the video game. On top of that Curs>r seems to work on a scene-by-scene scheme – there’s no consistency in all the torments the game brings about.
Writers Matthew James Wilkinson, Toby Meakins, and Simon Allen brainstorm on the go, setting no boundaries for the mechanics of the game. Some ideas are preposterous – like a 2D maze level where Kayla needs to help her mother escape from a human-sized rat. Furthermore, Curs>r’s installed on Kayla’s computer, but the game’s UI magically flashes as a real-life hologram or appears on her smartphone. At the same time, hacking into such an advanced gizmo requires the skillset of a twelve-year-old, as explained by Isaac.
I could go on and on, enlisting the many sins of Choose or Die (2022) on the conceptual and logical level. Yet so many films failed a similar test, passed the fun one though, and eventually gained a full-on absolution. Meakins, however, immerses this narrative in an awfully deadpan tone. Even Asa Butterfield’s comedy chops seem largely misplaced, probably because of the dry chemistry between him and Iola Evans. In the light of no redeeming features on the horizon, Choose or Die (2022) should, just like the Curs>r game that’s been lost decades ago, vanish in the abyss of the worst Netflix Originals.