FANTASIA 2017: GAME OF DEATH

A new horror movie about millennials’ heads exploding? Sign me up any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Game of Death is the movie in question, and it’s another horror flick by way of those horror masterminds…the French Canadians? In truth, Canada has produced some terrific little horror gems the past few years and Game of Death continues that trend. It’s a gruesome, blood-soaked symphony of violence, accompanied almost the entire time by a bad-ass synth score from Julien Mineau that helps make the film seem almost as if it’s one extended sequence, though it’s certainly not. We shift in and out of the current timeline to camera phone footage of the friends enjoying themselves and that adds this hypnotic effect that makes Game of Death seem like it could have spring from the mind of Harmony Korine. But it didn’t. Filmmakers Sebastien Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace have a distinct visual style all their own.

We open with six friends partying at a beautiful home – drinking, swimming, making out – the works. They are soon joined by a seventh member, pizza delivery guy Tyler (Erniel Baez Duenas) who moonlights as a drug dealer. When Tom (Sam Earle) discovers an old board game called “Game of Death”, the seven friends decide to play, only to realize that the game is far more realistic than they ever imagined. The rules are simple – the game decides how many people you have to kill. If too much time elapses before someone dies, the game will kill someone at random. And it does this by making their heads explode in a pretty horrific manner, as it slowly swells and bulges and then bursts into a shower of blood and brains. The number they receive is “24” and so the game begins. Tom immediately gets into the spirit of the grisly task at hand and encourages them all to start killing to avoid death themselves. Ashley (Emelia Hellman) and Tyler are less hell bent on murdering innocent people. When the group split up, what results is a mad dash as Ashley and Tyler try and stop Tom and Beth (Victoria Diamond) from completing the murders remaining in the game.

We might as well begin with the gore and the effects here are tremendous. The way in which the film handles the heads exploding is pretty spectacular, as it doesn’t shy away from showing us every step of the process all the way up until the ‘pop’. It reminded me a great deal of Scanners, but this film does a better job of really showing the horror in the whole process. But it’s not just the explosions that amp up the gore level. You get gunshots, and stabbings, and one particularly horrific scene where the kids run over a runner with their car. I am not used to seeing Canadian horror as intense as I got with Game of Death and it was a welcomed surprise. Sometimes, gore really gets on my nerves because it serves no purpose and just seems thrown in. But, here, it feels organic to the plot and it really does escalate the threat level these kids are facing. We have to wonder – knowing how  they could meet their end – would we kill people to stop our heads from exploding? I wish I had a concrete answer to that question but I don’t.

The performances here are uniformly excellent. Sam Earle makes a terrific…I don’t know…antagonist? He’s very matter-of-fact about the whole thing and really just treats the murders like a job he has to do. You get the sense he would never kill again when he gets finished, but he’s single-minded in his determination until he does finish. Emelia Hellman also makes a compelling moral center for the group, even though she’s doing some pretty horrible things herself…but she’s as close to a moral center as this group gets. Thomas Vallieres (who plays Matthew) doesn’t get as much screen times as the rest of the kids, but he gets one of the best staged screen deaths I’ve ever seen. The cinematography in that moment reminded me of the late Harris Savides and something you’d have seen in a Sofia Coppola film. It just produces this insane amount of dread that carries over right until the inevitable happens. It’s a brilliantly composed piece of horror and a real stand-out from a movie of standouts.

I would expect to hear about big things from this film. It’s an unusual little picture that weaves a violent little spell. I could have done without the weird video game montage in the middle, but I get what they were going for, my problems with it aside. But, man, I had a blast with this film and hope it makes it into theatres so more people can experience it. It could certainly become a cult classic. It reminded me a bit of Jeremy Saulnier’s Murder Party, but I hope it gets discovered in a way that film never did, unfortunately. Game of Death shows no mercy throughout and wears its blood on its sleeve. It’s The Belko Experiment for millennials, and who doesn’t wanna see a bunch of privileged little fucks gets mowed down, Scanners style? It’s the equivalent of getting to play a video game where you just shoot Mumford & Sons.

Billy Ray Brewton

Billy Ray Brewton is a writer/director of stage and screen from Alabama, California, and anywhere else that will take him. Until late-2013, he called Birmingham home, where he founded Theatre Downtown, a community theatre specializing in original and contemporary works. His original musical comedy, “Skanks in a One Horse Town”, was the subject of the documentary, “Skanks”, which premiered at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival. His debut feature horror film, “Show Yourself”, world premiered at Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival and is currently on the festival circuit. He is in pre-production for his second feature, “Midnights at the Sad Captain”, filming in 2017.
Billy Ray Brewton
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