Monday, June 6, 2022

I Choo Choo Choose Not to Die


In the ever-growing realm of streaming services, Netflix probably has one of the lesser track records for original horror movies. Sure, there are a handful of successes (Fear Street, There's Someone Inside Your House, the Mike Flanagan train) but it just doesn't seem to have much invested in marketing its genre offerings. Maybe that's why so many diehard horror fans seem ready to pounce on its exclusive titles and tear them apart. 

Quick Plot: As Tolstoy once said, all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and in the case of Choose or Die's prologue characters, this one is being driven to monstrous self-harm inspired by an '80s computer game. 

Three months after a particularly violent incident, our action shifts to Kayla, a talented aspiring programmer who can't seem to catch a break. Her job applications get rejected, the eviction notices pile up, a drug-dealing neighbor continues to threaten, and the memories of her drowned baby brother keep haunting. No wonder Kayla's agoraphobic mother is hanging on by a thread.

Enter Kayla's nerdy pal Isaac with a trash pile of techware, including a game that looks suspiciously similar to something we saw three months (or ten minutes) earlier. It's called Curs>r, and the basic graphics entice with a $100,000 prize. Working late, Kayla gives it a spin at an almost-empty diner and in the process, tips the lonely waitress by inadvertently programming her to eat broken glass. 

See, Curs>r is a very simple challenge: at 2AM, you find yourself in front of a screen that asks you to "choose or die." The choice in question is a Scylla and Charybdis of pain aimed not at the player, but someone close to them (physically or emotionally). Kayla enlists Isaac to help trace the location of game's signal and they begin to unravel a mystery that yes, involves evil computer code.

Choose or Die is a silly, silly film, but I found myself having a darn good time. Part of that may stem from my general enjoyment of techno-horror, be it cellular, landline, or social media-based. Choose or Die makes plenty of self-aware commentary about the differences (and our obsession with) the 1980s, seemingly NOT aware how of-THIS-time the film's own story and style feel. It's kind of charming!

Directed by first-timer Toby Meakins, Choose or Die has a fresh, young energy, something I love to see in my tech-based horror but many broader genre audiences seem to reject (Countdown and Unfriended spring to mind, but there are probably a dozen more in the last ten years). In the particular case of Choose or Die, I wonder how much the particular timing of its release fed into the movie's poor reception. It dropped the same weekend Netflix's sagging numbers were made public and its CEO suggested the future was to bring on the advertising. Suddenly, to the horror internet, it was also the worst movie of the year.

I'm not going to throw myself into traffic defending Choose or Die, but I found it to be exactly what I was looking for in a horror movie about a homicidal computer game. It moved quickly, centered itself on a likable lead, and managed to throw in a few surprises in its execution of rather ridiculous sequences. It's Black Mirror's Bandersnatch for the popcorn crowd, only actually fun to watch. 

What's not to enjoy?

High Points
Maybe I'm a softie or maybe I just have too many deep-rooted memories of watching fictional family die in flat Oregon Trail graphics, but I found the scene where Kayla has to navigate her mother through a black-and-screen 2D screen to escape invisible rats surprisingly creepy

Low Points
There are aspects of the third act showdown reveal that are surprising and intriguing, but there's something a little too style-over-substance in how the film treats a certain trio of characters that leaves the ending a little muddier than I would have liked. I'm all for keeping horror movies short and quick, but it feels like we're missing a little bit of explanation right when we could use a clearer setup

Lessons Learned
To be pregnant implies you're both stupid AND lazy

Never pick red

Hell is a karaoke brunch spot that makes you sing for a menu

Unlike the majority of the vocal horror community online, I really liked Choose or Die! It's 90 minutes of creative kills wisely weighted by an emotionally committed cast. I'll take it.  

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