It’s strange that the silly but mostly tolerable horror Choose or Die was an acquisition rather than a homegrown Netflix original given how much it seems algorithmically modeled for the notoriously formula-obsessed platform. It stars Asa Butterfield, an in-house star thanks to the success of Sex Education. It’s contemporary-set but baked in 80s nostalgia, something that also inspires the aesthetic of the aforementioned comedy series as well as the entirety of long-running hit Stranger Things. It also focuses on a cursed video game, making it a close cousin to the streamer’s interactive Black Mirror hit Bandersnatch. It’s a film destined to live its days in the “if you like” container.
It’ll probably fare well there as fans of the above might find just about enough here to play with although they might, like me, be a little surprised at just how nasty this quickie horror is, made with closer attention to the gore quotient than any level of creativity. It’s part of the cursed tech subgenre that expanded after the success of Gore Verbinski’s surprisingly effective remake of Ringu, later retitled The Ring. It led to more similarly plotted J-horror remakes, such as One Missed Call, Pulse and Shutter, and then also a string of US copycats, like Feardotcom, Unfriended and Stay Alive, a 2006 flop that saw a group of teens playing a deadly video game. We’re in similar, yet mildly more proficient, territory here with the discovery of a dusty 80s game called CURS>R (the film’s original title), that coerces players into making genuine life-or-death decisions.
It’s found by 80s-obsessive Isaac (Butterfield), compelled by the idea that the $125,000 prize money might still lay unclaimed and further seduced by the recorded voice of Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, at the end of the hotline. His friend, and object of affection, Kayla (relative newcomer Iola Evans) is less convinced but living on the breadline has her willing to take a chance, struggling to get by on a measly cleaner’s wage. And so it begins.
What’s vaguely refreshing about this admittedly rather ho-hum set-up is that Kayla isn’t the hands-on-hips scold she might have been in another more cliche version of this story but the one who boots up the game herself to play. She’s as tech-savvy as Isaac and the film’s main, plot-propelling protagonist. The first encounter with the game sees Kayla playing in an empty diner, forced to watch a flirty waitress eat glass in front of her. It’s a bracingly nasty scene, automatically cluing us into the torture porn-adjacent territory we’re in, far from what we might have expected (there’s a whiff of the far superior Escape Room films here which exist firmly in the world of PG-13).
But while the gore is impressively visceral and well-realised, the rest of it is a few steps behind. It’s an overwhelmingly British film, shot in London with local actors (there’s a bookending appearance from Eddie Marsan while soap stalwart Angela Griffin also pops up), that’s bizarrely set in an unnamed US city, forcing everyone into at times laughably shoddy Ay-meh-reek-uhn accents. It’s a baffling misstep, clearly made for commercial reasons, that adds a layer of amateurishness to what’s otherwise a solidly directed first feature for Brit Toby Meakins. He doesn’t quite take enough advantage of his reality-shifting game sequences (the Englund voice cameo serves to remind us just how wild Wes Craven made those nightmares way back when) but it’s a cut above the average Netflix genre guff.
The script, from TV writer Simon Allen, acts as mostly just pedestrian framework for the game scenes, which thankfully do arrive quite often. The specifics of the plot make little to no real sense, even in the moment, but that won’t much matter to the sleepover crowd, who’ll be too distracted by the nasty noise of it all. Don’t understand how a malevolent curse ties to game code? Who cares, here’s a teenager eating his arm! In a choice between coherence and cruelty, it’s an easy win.