Now, here was a pleasant little surprise, not only a movie that I hadn’t heard of before I saw it in the Newly to VOD list, but one which exceeded my initial expectations after reading about it. I don’t say it facetiously when I say that in this business, after one has seen scores of movies, one can get jaded – often all it takes is reading the synopsis, and already you’re forming opinions about the cast, production, storyline, etc. So thank you, Gods and Goddesses of Luck, now can you do something about those lottery numbers I keep asking for, please? Thanks.
It’s no lie to say that Life deals us with some shitty hands. It does to all of us, some more than others, though we’re usually unable to appreciate the level of shitness we’re in compared to others. Take Iris (Brittany Snow, PITCH PERFECT, HARRY’S LAW) for instance. Stuck in a small town, left with debt following the deaths of her parents, having to quit school and take care of her seriously-ill brother Raleigh (Logan Miller, GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST) and unable to find work, to say she’s desperate is like saying Kim Kardashian is a bit of an attention whore. So when Raleigh’s physician Dr Barden (Lawrence Gilliard Jr, THE MACHINIST) introduces her to millionaire Shepard Lambrick (genre favourite Jeffrey Combs), who offers to help Iris’ brother with finding a bone marrow donor, as well as the other financial problems, she gladly, gratefully accepts – not even questioning his invitation to his mansion to participate in a dinner and an unusual game. After she leaves, Lambrick and Dr Barden engage in an ominous conversation about how ‘suitable’ she is for the proceedings, Lambrick swaying the reluctant-seeming Barden to continue to collude.
On the night of the dinner and game, Lily is picked up and driven out to the isolated estate, where she finds she’s not alone: there’s ten of them, including recovering alcoholic Conway (John Heard, Macauley Culkin’s dad in the HOME ALONE movies, but I won’t hold it against him), wheelchair-bound Linda (June Squibb, GHOST WHISPERER), haunted Iraqi war vet Travis (Charlie Hofheimer, BLACK HAWK DOWN) and professional bitch Amy (ex-porn star Sasha Grey, which explains the resume which includes BUTT SEX BONANZA and SEINFELD: A XXX PARODY, which sounds like a lot more happens in that than in the TV show it parodies). Lambrick joins them for dinner, as does his smarmy decadent son Julian (Robin Taylor, ANOTHER EARTH), and through the course of the evening, Lambrick gives them a taste of things to come: he offers a stack of money to vegetarian Iris to eat some steak and foie gras, and then a bigger stack of money to Conway to break his abstinence and drink whiskey. Both eventually comply, to Lambrick’s cynical amusement.
Then, once the dinner plates have been cleared and the guests are given a final chance to leave, Lambrick has the doors locked as he fully explains that in order for the guests to have a chance to get the money they all so desperately need for various reasons, he intends them to play a game of Would You Rather with each other. But instead of the puerile choices we might have faced when we played this as children (“Would you rather kiss a girl, or eat a worm?”), the choices given to Lambrick’s guests are decidedly more deadly. And participation now becomes very, very mandatory, as Conway finds when he’s shot dead by Lambrick’s chief butler Bevans (Jonny Coyne, who played the Warden in TV’s short-lived series ALCATRAZ).
Now Lambrick gleefully enjoys watching the “guests” sitting around the dinner table, wired up to electroshock devices or given icepicks or whipping sticks and given excruciating choices to make, all under a very short timeframe governed by Lambrick’s old-fashioned timer. Most are like Lily, shocked and horrified as they’re pushed into ever-increasingly horrific choices, though others, like Amy, immediately seize the opportunity and play the game all too well. Who will survive, and what will become of them, as some old horror movie tagline went?
Reading the synopsis, you might be mistaken for thinking that WOULD YOU RATHER is some cheap SAW torture porn knock-off. In fact I think fans of those movies might be disappointed by this. Director David Guy Levy and screenwriter Steffen Schachtenhaufen give us a subdued, almost civilised version of those movies, reminding me of something Hitchcock might have tried back in the Fifties or Sixties if he was adapting something particularly twisted from the library of Agatha Christie (it did remind of me some drawing-room murder mystery), and though the level of actual gore we get is small, the emotional brutality and creepy atmosphere throughout compensates, at least for me. It’s a low-budget movie, most of it taking place around Lambrick’s dinner table, and we only get glimpses of what drives those besides Lily to being where they are now (though even the mercenary and seemingly unsympathetic Amy gets some redeeming backstory). The cast, a mix of movie and TV personalities, work quite well, and their characters are given chances to reveal, some nobly taking punishments rather than inflicting them on the rest, others more selfish and even cruel, wanting to survive and win at all costs.
Jeffrey Combs excels as the baddie (which is pleasing to me, given the last thing I saw him in what the supremely s**t NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD 3D: RE-ANIMATION, a movie so bad that children born on the day it was released have a 60% greater chance of becoming serial killers), making a role which could have gone over the top believable. Likewise, Brittany Snow gives a believable performance, effectively going from desperation to shock to terror as the threat escalates and the numbers around her dwindle. I didn’t think she had it in her, and I don’t mean that as an insult; some performers are quite good in the lightweight roles they’re given, and not every actor has to be proficient at sturm und drang.
It’s not perfect by any means. Apart from the general lack of gore, and the way that some of the characters so quickly and easily died from the injuries inflicted on them, horrible as many of them were (almost as if we wanted to keep things moving, hmmm…) I kept wondering why none of them questioned how Lambrick could let the theoretical winner leave alive at the end of the night knowing what they had gone through (but then admittedly they didn’t have much time to ponder such notions, and even less choice to do anything about it if they did). And it seemed incredulous to me while watching that none of them had asked for more details about the nature of the game they would be participated in.
But perhaps that was the point, that people are often driven to desperate measures to find quick, easy fixes in life, whether it’s gambling or God, crime or loan sharks, and we become blind to the possible consequences.
WOULD YOU RATHER ends up an intense, disturbing movie. It’s not big and flashy and probably will never get the attention it deserves. The trailer follows. Have a look, you could do worse than watch it:
Director: David Guy Levy
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 2 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien. The D is silent.