Early on in Netflix’s proudly derivative new horror film Choose or Die, a mother brandishing a kitchen knife bickers with her teenage son over his father’s obsession with the 1980s. The reclusive father (Eddie Marsan) hides out in his man-cave, a room lined with retro gaming consoles. He sees his vintage computer flicker green until it displays a question: “His tongue or her ears? Choose or die.” What initially seems like a morbid role-playing game graduates to a terrifying reality: The option he takes will materialize into an actual punishment inflicted on either his wife or son.
The fetishization of the 1980s — its trends and pop culture, especially movies and music — is recalibrated to frightening ends in Toby Meakins’ Choose or Die. Unlike, say, Ready Player One, Simon Allen’s light script doesn’t wholly worship at the decade’s altar. Sure, overt references to A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gary Newman, and industrial music artist Fad Gadget proliferate throughout the film. The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett even provides the movie’s synth score. But Meakins and Allen want to interrogate the innate horrors of living exclusively in the past. It’s a smart lesson obscured by a kitschy script that feels like Allen is taking too much pleasure in his self-perceived importance.
In its basic features, the premise is an even more nightmarish take on Jumanji. Three months after the film’s opening events, Kayla (Iola Evans) leaves her janitorial job cleaning an empty office building aptly named “Kismet.” She’s a recent college dropout, a whiz with motherboards and coding who’s looking for a job in programming while caring for her ailing mother, who’s addicted to unspecified illegal drugs. The pair haven’t been the same since Kayla’s young brother drowned in the local swimming pool. When Kayla isn’t at home, she hangs out with a fellow programmer and game designer, the shy, lovesick Isaac (Asa Butterfield).
While sifting through Isaac’s recent rummage-sale acquisitions, Kayla discovers an old game called “Curs>R.” It promises a $125,000 grand prize for the winner. When she calls the hotline, she’s greeted by the voice of Nightmare on Elm Street star Robert Englund, playing himself in a cameo. Believing the defunct game may still hold some potential for money, Kayla repairs and plays it, leading to a confluence of terrible events that put her and everyone around her in danger.
At 84 minutes, Choose or Die is a whip-bang film that rests on brisk, sturdy storytelling. Evans, a surprising newcomer, imbues Kayla with a rich inner life. She’s a bundle of stress and exhaustion, all fleshed out over her hardened face. Her performance begs for other components around her to feel similarly elevated, a request the film can’t complete because of its frustrating simplicity. In that regard, one of the film’s biggest offenders is the wishy-washy character Lance (Ryan Gage), who might work in the building, might be in a sexual relationship with Kayla’s mother, and is definitely her dealer, but languishes as a cartoonish trash predator who’s barely feigning believability.
Given the film’s tiny ensemble and scale — there are just a few sets, which probably made pandemic shooting easier — Kayla and Isaac’s relationship needs to carry the story. But their weak interpersonal dynamics begrudge credibility. At a diner, for instance, Kayla taps into the Curs>R game. As she plays, she notices how it can warp reality through her gameplay choices, causing a waitress to swallow glass. (The ASMR sound design in this scene is stomach-turning.)
The incident leaves her shaken and desperate for answers about the game’s origins. When a confused Isaac promises to find answers, she sneers, “Yeah, you go do that. You’re so fuckin’ smart.” It’s never clear why she’s so belligerent. She’s so casually cruel to Isaac, it raises the question of how the two ever met, or how they’re still friends. That shortcoming leaves the plausibility of any romance between them as a head-scratching development.
Choose or Die is best when Allen and Meakins blissfully design scares based around Kayla’s grief over her brother’s death. One setpiece, decorated by a blinding fog and green shocks of light, takes place in an abandoned swimming pool. It features the movie’s best jump-scares, as the sound takes over for the audience’s obscured vision. In this fright, which feeds off Kayla’s trauma and sets up an impossible decision around her brother’s ghost, it’s clear how Meakins wants to explain the pitfalls that come from living in the past, and the way unresolved torments can eat at people. If the film stayed in this register, it would suffice as a stirring allegory. But Meakins and Allen can’t leave well enough alone.
The final act of Choose or Die flies wildly off the rails because the filmmakers try to attach logic to their absurd concept. It’s an odd move, considering Jumanji, for instance, thrives on the unexplained mystery of the boardgame’s origin. Instead, the filmmakers attach a sinister backstory to the game that only muddles the mood and tone. They further reach for profundity through Kayla’s confrontation with the proverbial final boss, a totemic version of a fragile white man alarmed by society’s increasing hunger for cultural diversity, and the idea that people like him are more impediments to people of color than white knights, riding in to save the day. “Aren’t guys like me allowed to be heroes anymore?” he gripes. That line lands with a thud in a finale that takes itself far, far too seriously for a film that provided very little setup for such a big representative statement.
Meakins’ Choose or Die could easily be the next grimly fun horror franchise, picking up where the sprawling Saw franchise or the Escape Room movies left off. But the creators’ quest for deeper meaning feels strained and overreaching, and it overwhelms the adventurous spirit of the film’s first half. If anything, this is at least a great jumping-off point for Evans, who never wavers, even when everything around her does.
Choose or Die is streaming on Netflix now.