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"Jumanji with a body count" was how one critic described cursed video game horror Stay Alive when it was released 15 years ago this month, on March 24. It's become an even more apt comparison since The Rock-starring reboot swapped Jumanji's board game construct for a vintage console. But instead of transporting its players to a menacing fantasy world, Stay Alive brings the slightly more hellish set-up to them. And rather than a herd of stampeding elephants, the danger emerges from an infamous historical figure whose anti-aging methods involved slaughtering hundreds of young women.
For the big boss here is Elizabeth Báthory, the 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman who reportedly bathed in the blood of her many victims in a bid to stay young. The historical figure was having quite the renaissance as a fictional villain in the mid-'00s, having also featured in The Brothers Grimm, Hostel Part II, and the Hellboy animated series.
On this occasion, however, the Countess is an equal opportunity serial killer. Anyone who plays the first-person shooter based on her ghoulish backstory is fair game, which is bad news for the players, but the people watching Stay Alive might be glad that this particular cast of characters is about to meet a gruesome end after inadvertently summoning her.
Props to director William Brent Bell and his regular co-writer Matthew Peterman for not resorting to the tired cliché of basement-dwelling nerds, at least. The closest the main gang gets to all-out geekery is Frankie Muniz's sidekick Swink, an overexcited tech whiz who wastes little time figuring out how to strip the game's zombies naked. Yet, they saddle the rest of their cast largely assembled from soapy teen dramas with characters even more two-dimensional than their in-game avatars. Final boy Hutch (Life As We Know It's Jon Foster) is given a tragic backstory about his mother being burned alive. Though, like final girl Abigail (The O.C.'s Samaire Armstrong) and her hints at a troubled past, he's too bland for it to hold any emotional weight.
Only Jimmi Simpson's Phineus is afforded any semblance of personality. Unfortunately, it's the kind of dickish, misogynistic one which leaves you grateful when he's mercilessly run over by a speeding horse-drawn carriage. Although we must admit, his "Sweet Sebastian Bach" is quite the exclamation.
Nevertheless, the idea of players dying in the same manner as their video game character is an intriguing one. A shame, then, that after a first half fastidiously setting up the rules, Stay Alive spends the second completely contradicting them.
We're initially told that Báthory can only kill her target in the real world once they've perished in the fictional creepy plantation setting. It's an effective set-up clarified right there in the tagline ("You die in the game, you die for real"). Hence, Milo Ventimiglia and Adam Goldberg's careless gamers being brutally dispatched within the opening 15 minutes.
But then Phineus meets his maker while his character is very much alive and pretty soon the villainess has gone completely rogue, butchering anyone who's dared to pick up the joystick that buzzes whenever she's on the prowl. Even Hutch laments the lack of logic ("I don't know what the rules are anymore, maybe there aren't any rules") after learning that the long-term girlfriend he'll strangely soon forget all about (One Tree Hill's Sophia Bush) is set to become the next victim.
Considering it's centered around the most prolific female murderer in history, Stay Alive is also a strangely bloodless affair. Most of the death scenes occur off-screen or cut away at the vital moment. And Báthory is finally thwarted not by a medieval tool of torture but by a disappointingly tame blend of nails, wild roses, and an Alienware laptop screen.
Perhaps Walt Disney is to blame for a slasher that's all-too-afraid to show the slashes. Stay Alive is the first, and the last, such horror to emerge from the Mouse House stable: Offshoot Hollywood Pictures even came out of a four-year hibernation to slap its name on it. Although if you ever wanted to hear the main kid from Malcolm in the Middle shout "punk-a** b*** motherf***ers," then you're still in luck.
The latter's attempt to shake off his child star past bore the brunt of the negative critical response. Of course, that was nothing compared to the vitriol Bell received for his next venture: By directing viewers to a website for the full story, The Devil Inside's gimmicky ending became widely regarded as one of the all-time worst. Stay Alive is at least a complete story.
Stay Alive still did respectable numbers, though, raking in nearly $11 million at the U.S. box office on its opening weekend to finish in third place. Its total gross of $23 million also surpassed that of several other 2006 slashers including Wolf Creek, the Black Christmas remake, and Pulse, the latter another tale of technology channeling an evil entity.
Yet it left little impact on the horror landscape. It's telling that while all the aforementioned have been given the sequel or reboot treatment, there haven't been any attempts to extend Stay Alive's muddled mythology. Its nearest counterpart, Pulse, was by no means a classic, either. However, with Wes Craven as screenwriter, it at least had a vaguely coherent narrative and the occasional effective jump scare. And Báthory looks positively cuddly compared to the unrelenting sadism of Wolf Creek's iconic villain Mick Walker.
Stay Alive's rather macabre denouement, which shows the game being sold en masse for the PlayStation 2 (the three survivors and the entire New Orleans police force obviously failed to inform makers of its malevolent powers), suggests Bell had one eye on a franchise, too. The reverse-Jumanji is a great concept, but like the Silent Hill knockoff that sentences its players to death, its execution is more beta test than final product