Game Of Death Review [SXSW 2017]


Somewhere between Scanners and Beyond The Gates exists Game Of Death, a kill-em-all deathmatch rooted in Hasbro innocence. Directors Sebastien Landry and Laurence “Baz” Morais inject nihilistic curiosity into a gruesome, head-splitting gore flick that abides by predetermined rules. Questions about existence first, visceral body-mutilating second. Or is it bloody, practical-FX-driven cranium combusting first, existential dread second? There’s a constant tug-of-war at play between bewildered contestants and unlucky bystanders, who are slain in the name of diabolical decisions. Are there any winners in the Game Of Death? That’s for you to decide.

It all starts with millennial partying. Attractive hardbodies swill liquor and get high while chillaxing poolside at some lavish crash pad. Ashley (Emelia Hellman) hooks up with boyfriend Matt (Thomas Vallieres). Kenny (Nick Serino) wakes up with a cartoon dick on his face. Brother Tom (Sam Earle) receives a sensual lap dance from sister Beth (Victoria Diamond) – wait, what? You’d think their incestuous undertones would be the weirdest aspect of Game Of Death, until the titular device is discovered.

One by one, players place their fingers on a white skull found at each edge of an octagon board. Someone presses play. Fingers are pricked, and blood rushes into the middle console. Just like that, “Game Of Death” begins with the number “24” flashing on a digital screen. Tom reads off instructions, which state that someone (anyone) must die before each countdown cycle depletes – otherwise a player’s head blows up. Funny joke, right? Sure – until Matt’s head blows up and the display ticks to 23 (followed by a devilish laugh).

Landry and Morais waste no time evoking a gamer’s paradise, as 8-bit credits introduce Game Of Death like an NES title-opening. “With the clock ticking, is time worth living?” reads scrolling text, juxtaposed against a midnight-purple seascape. “Make a choice, you or I; without decision – one will die.” Beams of energy surge from a pixelated rendering of the game, and we’re teased by the devastation that awaits. It’s a simple way to establish the game’s powers without any rambling exposition, far before characters choose their fates. How better to introduce an unreal tournament than a “Press Play” screen?

Diving deeper, the game’s design draws comparisons to Jackson Stewart’s VHS play-along “Beyond The Gates” in its ingenuity. “Game Of Death” interacts with players, first stealing their blood, then laughing every time a murder is committed (or head explodes). Small details, but the game’s blocky-face giggling gives such venomous personality to an otherwise inanimate object (re: Barbara Crampton in Beyond The Gates). Anyone can toss dice and read cards, but the fact that “Game Of Death” taunts its victims adds a sinister hilarity – especially when still being clenched by a bloody, decapitated corpse.

Oh, and when I say bloody, I mean bloody with a capital “HOLY SHIT.” Remember the good old days (think Dead Alive), where characters spent entire movies covered in bone shards and bodily fluids? Game Of Death splatters anyone within a twenty-foot radius of each mind-blowing bursts, from the very first goo-gasm ’till the last. Matt’s untimely demise coats Ashley and Kenny with a thick layer of red muck, like an entire cherry pie was smashed over their faces. It’s practical gruesomeness you’d expect from genre “comedies” like Deathgasm and Turbo Kid, DIY in nature but still viciously employed. Even the head-swelling – example above – manages to mask CG touch-ups. Landry and Morais have a taste for blood, and are gluttonous in their desires.

That being said, some scenes feel a tad off in their abusive, almost hateful structures. Tom whips out a gun early on, asserting himself as the token white sociopath. Beneath his obsession with *sister* Beth and prep-school properness exists a madman who takes to “Game Of Death” like an old pro. We watch from a wounded jogger’s point-of-view (for too long) as Tom forces the gun into his sister’s hands, driving home their commitment to winning. It’s mean and nasty stuff, but Landry and Morais display a tendency to instill their points without restraint here and there (focusing on discarded corpses a bit too long, for example). Ashely tells us that “nobody has any fucking idea” what the rules of life are, and the only real way to “win” (life) is to die. “Death is a bonus level.” Well. Holy-fucking-shit. There goes my self-worth.

By way of performances, this cast of affluenza stereotypes “thoughtfully” engage with Game Of Death. “Pizza Hawt” drug-dealer Tony sides with Ashely in their want to kill themselves – not others – while Tom and Beth go all Natural Born Killers (IF THEY WERE RELATED). Opening shenanigans aren’t new (some basement “somf-ing,” beer bongs, video messages), but once the field is weeded out, we can focus on the film’s true questions. Like is it morally approved to execute a hospital full of terminal patients in order to beat “Game Of Death?” In the scheme of our universe, are 24 lives that much to waste? Why is there a sexy shirtless Santa handing out presents in a police precinct?

Game Of Death is a madcap murder party, set to jive more with the midnight horror crowd. Production isn’t always tight (some wonky edits, shaky cameras, a shotgun maybe shooting a rifle bullet), but Sebastien Landry and Laurence “Baz” Morais accomplish their end goal – blow up heads, and question life’s meaning. Each tick of the timer brings us closer to finality, equating death to a game torn from Charles Manson’s fantasy world. Homages to Hotline Miami, Doom (or any FPS shooter), “Money For Nothing” graphics – it’s all doomsday playfulness with a pop-culture twist.

And manatees. So many lazy, stupid manatees (nihilism dig).

Game Of Death Review [SXSW 2017]

Game Of Death is Beyond The Gates meets Scanners, gleefully gory and ready to blow the minds of midnight movie lovers.