Happy Valentine’s Day, people. Please put your candy and/or sweetheart aside and come along with me on our continued snarky journey through bad horror movies. Today we’ll be concluding Bloody Hearts with our review of Would You Rather.
It is an uncomfortable movie with a surprising amount of actual potential. Unfortunately, the finished product is just not very good.
Iris (Brittany Snow) desperately needs money to pay for her little brother’s cancer treatment, so she accepts a sketchy proposition from a creepy gazillionaire (Jeffrey Combs) and ends up playing a sadistic version of Would You Rather with seven other equally desperate contestants.
1. We live in the age of Google. Say about that what you will, but it means that when some rich weirdo at the doctor’s office who discards his chewed nutshells on the seat next to him like a sick fuck offers you a chance to play some kind of vaguely described game at his residence for a chance to win millions . . . you can go home and look that asshole up.
I’m not saying Iris should expect a night of horrifying torture, nor am I saying there will necessarily be evidence of Combs’s intentions online — though there is apparently enough for at least one conspiracy theorist to be involved — but it bothers me we never see Iris make even the most rudimentary attempt at research on this guy’s foundation. I know the doctor backed up Jeffrey Combs’s legitimacy and all, but I have to say, as a woman? I would not be particularly inclined to go to a stranger’s estate at night by myself when I had absolutely no details on what kind of “game” I would be playing to save my brother’s life. I certainly wouldn’t want a driver to pick me up and leave me stranded at their place with no vehicle of my own. (I mean, assuming I could drive, which I can’t. But I still would have wanted someone I actually knew to give me a ride, or at the very least, I would have told SOMEBODY where I was going. Come on, Iris. I know you’re desperate, but these are very basic safety precautions I’m talking about.)
2. Ultimately — and unfortunately — I think Would You Rather fails as a scary movie. But whether you see any potential in it or not probably depends upon your tolerance for the torture porn sub-genre.
The greater majority of people I talk to dislike torture porn as a matter of principle. (Or they don’t know what I’m talking about, in which case, I rapidly change subjects.) I certainly wouldn’t describe it as my favorite flavor of horror, but I do like movies that fall under the category — assuming anyone can agree on what constitutes ‘torture porn’ these days, which I’m pretty sure no one can. If we’re going by this list, though, there are a handful of films that I like: Hostel, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Saw, and The Hills Have Eyes (the 2006 remake).
It was really only a matter of time before someone turned ‘Would You Rather’ into a horror movie, and considering the nature of the game, it’s not at all surprising the film falls under the TP category. But I think this movie makes the mistake of very repetitive violence — the game here is structured into a series of rounds, and the first and second rounds basically consist of everyone having to make the same exact ‘get hurt this way or hurt someone that way’ choice. While occasionally interesting, this is a mostly limiting setup that fails on a couple of levels. Individuals challenges actually create better opportunities for character development, not to mention allow for more creative violence. And let’s be honest here — if you’re watching a horror movie based on ‘Would You Rather,’ you probably want some creative violence.
But I also think that the film might have benefitted from some choices that didn’t directly lead to physical violence. For instance, some of the psychological, pre-game stuff — offering a recovering alcoholic 50,000 dollars to drink scotch, for instance — is actually fairly sinister stuff. It might not sound like it, but the moment really plays well in the movie. I only wish there had been more moments like it leading up to all the Big Violent Death Stuff. It would make the characters more interesting and give the film a better shape.
3. What could also help give the film a better shape: writing out the utterly pointless characters.
This isn’t a particularly long film, but we really shouldn’t be wasting any time on people who don’t advance the plot in any meaningful way. These guys? Nada. Zippo. I’ll provide more details in the Spoiler Section, but neither of them change anything about the final outcome and are entirely irrelevant to the game itself.
4. Cutting these worthless characters is especially important when you have eight contestants and, save Iris, only bother to hint at maybe one or two other backstories. Most of the players are only deemed worthy of one-to-two word descriptions: goth girl, old lady, etc. We never get any indication on who these people really are or, more importantly, why they need this money so bad.
5. But I’ve been pretty negative so far. I should talk about what actually works: the acting. Well, okay. Some of the acting. I’ll get to the problems in a minute, but first let me focus on your two contenders for MVP: Jeffrey Combs and Enver Gjokaj.
Jeffrey Combs is kind of delightful in his typical oddball way. (Actually, this is almost tame as far as his eccentric characters go. If you want true Combs craziness, you should go watch The Frighteners.) His line deliveries are darkly funny and overall pretty fantastic. He kind of makes the movie, since he provides the only source of humor that, frankly, this film sorely needs.
On the other hand, Enver Gjokaj makes what should be an incredibly boring character actually somewhat likable, not to mention acts the holy hell out of this one scene. I can’t tell you what the scene is just yet, but man, it’s like . . . Jesus. Almost everyone else in the cast is clearly in it for the rent money, and Enver’s like, “Oh, HELL no. I am an ACTOR, and we’re doing this scene RIGHT.”
6. Of course, for every amazing performance, we have an equal and opposite performance . . . or something like that. That’s some kind of science law, right?
June Squibb is nominated for an Academy Award this year, and I’m sure she’s a fantastic actress who does great work in Nebraska, but her line deliveries HERE make no godamned sense to me. It’s like her character doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea what’s going on, and I know she’s old, but I’m pretty sure she isn’t supposed to have dementia.
Sasha Grey, on the other hand, appears to be mostly known for porn, if her IMDb credits are any indication. I won’t say she’s the worst actress I’ve ever seen on screen, but that’s a pretty long way from saying that she’s good. Of course, her character is entirely mishandled from the get-go — because of course it’s the goth who is the vicious sadist with no feelings — but if played by an actress who could, well, act, Goth Girl Amy could actually be kind of awesome. You know, in an evil, badass, Mitsuko from Battle Royale kind of way.
That’s about all I can tell you without getting into Spoilers, so let’s just go ahead and do that now, shall we?
We begin by spending a little time with Iris and her brother, Raleigh.
You’ll notice the knit cap Raleigh is wearing, which is the movie silently telling us that the kid has cancer — and that the actor didn’t want to shave his head or fuck around with a bald cap for his six minutes of screen time. (Much less wax his eyebrows or pluck out his eyelashes. Yeesh. That sounds like the beginning of a decent Would You Rather question right there: would you rather pluck out all your eyelashes, or ______ ?)
Iris came back from college to take care of Raleigh, although she can’t land a job and is drowning in debt. She goes to visit Dr. Barden (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) about payment options, and he introduces her to nut-eating, uber-rich weirdo Shepard Lambrick — of course his name is Shepard — who tells her (almost nothing) about the game, and that she needs to RSVP by 8:00pm tonight if she wants to participate.
Iris, to her credit, doesn’t immediately say yes. But I still find it ridiculous she wouldn’t tell anyone where she’s going. She lies to her brother that she’s going out with friends, presumably so he won’t get his hopes up or something. We will later find out that this is a deadly mistake. (Warning: I will be bitching about this A LOT towards the end of the review.)
Meanwhile, Dr. Barden — otherwise known as the most worthless character in the entire movie — has reservations about Iris becoming part of the game. Because she’s, you know. Young and blonde and pretty. My God, she’s just too innocent to die! See, Dr. Barden has a guilty conscience because he survived the game himself however many years ago, and he knows what she’s getting into. To that end, he decides to sneak into the estate that night and rescue her. The amount of time we spent intercutting the real action with Dr. Barden creeping around the house like a loser is ridiculous, and I remember thinking, I’m going to be super pissed off if this guy doesn’t manage to do anything at all to advance the plot. Guess how well his sneaking around turns out?
But that’s skipping ahead. First, we meet all of our contestants.
Lucas (Enver Gjokaj) and Cal (Eddie Steeples) take the time to helpfully tell
the audience Iris all about the other players. (Why she’s curious about the other people and not what the rules of the game are, I don’t know. Her seeming total lack of concern for what this game might entail continues to drive me batshit.) The one-to-two sentence descriptions we get of each character is about the extent of what we learn about them for the entire movie. So we’ve got:
Old Lady in a Wheelchair
Slightly Obnoxious Gambler
Recovering Alcoholic Conspiracy Theorist
Evil Goth Girl
Young Veteran with PTSD
Nice Guy Who is Doomed to Die Because He’s Black
Nice Guy Who is Almost-But-Not-Quite a Love Interest
Iris is, of course, the nice girl, and if you were wondering — Brittany Snow is okay. She’s not particularly exciting in this role, but she certainly isn’t terrible either. I seem to remember her being pretty bad in the remake of Prom Night, but maybe I’m just unfairly blaming the entire movie on her. That was, after all, an excruciatingly dull film.
So, the contestants all have dinner together with Evil Shepard Lambrick. Joining them for dinner is the movie’s other most unnecessary character, Julian. Julian is Shepard’s psychotic son who did something completely unacceptable — and almost certainly rapey — during last year’s game and has to be repeatedly reminded that there are rules and a code of conduct and all that. Julian sullenly promises to be good. I see that turning out almost as well as the doctor’s attempt to save Nice Girl Iris.
During dinner, Nice Girl Iris mentions she’s a vegetarian — because of course she is — and Shepard immediately senses an opportunity. He offers to pay ten thousand dollars for Iris to eat her steak. Eventually, she does it.
It’s hard to blame her when the money is actually on hand, staring her in the face. And it’s a surprisingly uncomfortable scene, although nothing compared to what immediately follows: Recovering Alcoholic Conspiracy Theorist (John Heard) says that he can’t drink because, really, he’s kind of a moron — were you not watching what just happened, Mr. McAllister — and Shepard presses, offering ten thousand dollars for a single glass of wine or fifty thousand for this, like, a JUG of Scotch. RACT ends up drinking the Scotch and is, of course, a slumped mess by the next scene, although frankly, I’m slightly surprised he isn’t dead.
None of this sounds so horrible when I type it, but there really is a very palpable unease to this whole scene — I’m actually glad I didn’t end up watching Would You Rather with my friends because it’s just not really a movie meant for group mockery. Some of the elements are done pretty well, actually, and while I wouldn’t say I had fun watching the movie, exactly, this part of the film did evoke a certain kind of psychological horror that’s fairly effective.
But then we move into the Real Game. And while it’s still troubling stuff, it’s just . . . it just gets awfully repetitive. I would say there’s a lot of screen time here that’s rife with missed opportunities. But never mind that for now: let’s talk about the first round, which consists primarily of an electroshock to the head. Everyone has to choose whether they want to shock themselves or the player to their right.
Noteworthy things that happen in this round:
1. Nice Guy Who is Doomed to Die Because He’s Black is first up and chooses to shock himself rather than Goth Girl Amy. It’s mostly notable because — unlike the others — he doesn’t have any idea what the voltage on this thing is and can’t know if it’s going to kill him or not. Brave, dude. Very brave.
2. Goth Girl Amy, on the other hand, shocks Old Lady in a Wheelchair before Shepard can even finish his sentence, showing that she doesn’t just shop at Hot Topic — she’s evil. I get why movies like this always need to have that one asshole who immediately starts playing dirty, but it does help if that character has some kind of personality or charisma or changed facial expression or anything. Also, it’d still be cool if dark eye makeup didn’t immediately translate to Daughter of Satan.
3. Recovering Alcoholic Conspiracy Theorist drunkenly tries to muscle his way out of the house and is shot for his trouble.
Bye, John Heard! You know, he dies in a fair amount of the things I see him pop up in. Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York being obvious exceptions.
4. Nice Guy Lucas (Enver Gjokaj) is the only contestant to get shocked twice . . . because he can’t shock the pretty blonde girl, of course. Lucas is really only tolerable because Enver Gjokaj is playing him. It’s very hard to play the inspirational Boy Scout. In related news, why the hell doesn’t Youtube have more clips of Victor in Dollhouse? This is criminal. I need my Victor fix now, and you’re failing me, Internet. (Ooh, never mind. Netflix has the whole series on Instant. Crap. I may have to sift through this now.)
In the interim between Round One and Round Two, Young Veteran with PTSD manages to piss off Julian the Psycho, which is unfortunate, because everyone’s next choice is to decide between whipping the vet or stabbing the person to their left in the thigh. This culminates in two more deaths: Old Lady and Young Vet. The gambler chooses to stab the Old Lady, trying to spare the kid who clearly can’t take any more, but does about the worst job you can think of and manages to kill her. I mean, I know not everyone knows how to avoid the femoral artery — I certainly wouldn’t — but I feel like if I had to guess, I wouldn’t stab directly into the upper middle of her thigh.
And then the Young Vet dies anyway when Previously Nice Guy Who is Doomed to Die Because He’s Black is abruptly swayed by Goth Girl Amy’s kill-or-be-killed philosophy and whips the ex-soldier. Actually, Young Vet doesn’t die immediately, but it’s clear that he’s going to and can no longer continue in any case, so he’s carried out of the room.
I suppose Previously Nice Guy isn’t doomed to die solely because he’s black. He basically has to die now, so we can have a kind of redemptive, ‘I did a bad thing, so I must die’ death. (Actually, Dr. Barden fits that description too.) Also, anyone who’s ever seen a movie before knows that our final two going into the last round are going to end up being Nice Girl Iris and Nice Guy Lucas, no matter how improbable that is. But up until this moment, Previously Nice Guy has been just as much of a stand up dude as Nice Guy Lucas, and yet there’s never been any doubt on which one is Iris’s almost-but-not-quite-love-interest is. I’m honestly not sure if that has to do with skin color or not.
So, the group — sans Goth Girl Amy — all try to escape. Previously Nice Guy is shot and killed, while Nice Girl Iris almost makes it out of the house. Unfortunately, Julian the Pyscho finds her and tries to rape her.
Dr. Barden, who has finally infiltrated the house, helps stops Julian and is immediately shot for his trouble by Bevans the Badass Butler. (I forgot to mention it before, but I do kind of enjoy Bevans.) And it’s just . . . why the hell did we waste all this time watching Dr. Barden sneak around if he’s just going to get insta-killed? It’d be one thing if he really kept Julian from raping Iris, but she’s actually managed to stab the little shit herself by the time Doc shows up, not to mention Bevans appears on scene not a minute later and would also have prevented Julian from attacking her again, should he have regained the upper hand. So . . . yeah. Barden really does nothing of any importance after the first five minutes of this movie and, arguably, not even then.
For that matter, do we really need an attempted rape scene anyway? I suppose it’s good that aristocratic people who think nothing of murdering or torturing poor people find rape just too . . . uncouth . . . to bear, but after this scene, Julian disappears to pout (and bleed) in his bedroom, and I just don’t think we needed to waste any time on him or Dr. Bardem.
We get to the (somewhat) gory stuff in Round Three. (Most of the explicit gore is implied in this movie, which I highly suspect has more to do with budget than taste.) Everyone gets an envelope with ‘challenges’ ranging from Totally Sucky to Totally Gonna Kill You Dead. The contestants have a choice to make — be held face down in a barrel of water for two minutes or open the envelope and hope for the best. If I had been stupid enough to attend this party, this is almost certainly the round I would die in, as I’m both a) asthmatic, and b) panicky underwater. Since the barrel would basically be an automatic death sentence anyway, I would have to choose the envelope, as most of the contestants do.
Gambler dies when he has to light a firecracker in his hand, and by firecracker, I mean a quarter stick of dynamite.
It blows his whole hand right off, and the shock and blood loss kill him shortly after that. Nice Girl Iris chooses the barrel of water and manages to hold her breath for the allotted two minutes. (If she hadn’t chosen the barrel, all of her teeth would have been forcibly removed.)
Goth Girl Amy opens her envelope because we find out she has a thing about drowning, considering her husband drowned their little girl once upon a time. It’s really the only backstory other than Iris’s we get, and while I don’t mind sympathetic villains by any means, last minute bids for sympathy that come out of nowhere right before a character bites it are always kind of a bullshit move. To make it meaner, Amy’s card just forces her to the barrel of water anyway, only she has to stay under for an additional two minutes. Not surprisingly, Goth Girl Amy quickly drowns.
Nice Guy Lucas also opens his envelope. He has to slit his own eye open with a razor blade.
This, by the way, is the scene where Enver Gjokaj brings the ACTING. I mean, he really goes for it — begging, bursting into tears, screaming obscenities, all of it. It’s pretty impressive. I never did finish watching Dollhouse when it was on air– it’s embarrassing, actually, how close I was to finishing it — but despite my problems with that show, I absolutely adored Gjokaj, and I remain surprised that his career hasn’t taken off more because he’s both attractive and awfully good at his job.
Of course, that leaves our Nice Girl and our Nice Guy as the last two left standing for the final round. Jeffrey Combs is all but smirking his lips off when he tells them that the person who goes first in the last round has a distinct advantage over the other player, so he flips a coin. The toss goes to Nice Girl Iris. She has the choice to walk out the door with Nice Guy Lucas but no money, or she can kill Lucas and win ALL the money.
Nice Guy Lucas immediately laughs, telling her that they’ve won, but quickly grows sober as he correctly reads the expression on her face. He tells Iris that they share something in common — he knows about her younger brother, see — and he’s still in the middle of explaining all about his sisters when Previously Nice Girl Iris promptly shoots and kills him.
This is actually pretty awesome because it’s really changing up the tropes. In a typical horror movie, Nice Girl Iris wouldn’t be able to do it, or she’d fake doing it and the two Nice Attractive People would somehow kill their captors and escape. Or maybe Nice Guy Lucas would kill himself, just so that she and her brother could be happy and alive together. But this . . . this is a far more interesting resolution. It is easily the most exciting thing about this movie, and I was all ready to bump up my grade a bit for this uneven little horror movie . . .
. . . until Iris gets home and discovers her brother has killed himself because he wants her to have a better life or some shit.
I cannot properly express to you my level of disgust with this ending.
One of the more interesting — and sometimes troubling — aspects about the horror genre is how it deals with morality. In fact, it might come up more in horror than it does in any other genre. The part that I actually like is the part that deals with what real people would do in terrifying situations — do you save yourself, do you go back for others, do you lose your humanity in the face of widespread inhumanity, etc. There isn’t a right or wrong way to respond in these situations for me — I like character development and consequences, so I really enjoy seeing the myriad of ways people can turn out given the various situations they’re put in.
The part that can be more problematic, however, is the ‘punishing’ aspect of horror, the part that deals with the victims who ‘deserve’ to be killed. And honestly, some of it doesn’t bother me. The typical misogynistic jock guy in a stupid teen horror film that gets axed? I actively tend to look forward to that, and the gorier his demise, the better. And anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows that I like vengeance stories. I mean, I really like them — or at least I’m attracted to them, if not always pleased with how they turn out.
It seems to me that there’s always a lot of talk about what our attraction to horror means, if you can only like certain aspects of horror and if liking violence for violence’s sake is wrong. Sometimes, I feel like I’m supposed to be apologetic for enjoying movies that don’t hold back on their shlocky, cartoonish gore or for watching films that positively revel in their artistic depictions of death and terror. The thing is . . . I’m not. Apologetic, that is. I fully get that it’s not everyone’s thing, but I don’t believe that my interest in these kinds of movies makes me any less of a well-adjusted person than the average rom-com moviegoer. (All bets are off if I’m wearing black lipstick, though. Sadist Carlie is out for blood on those days.)
So, I’m okay with some of the punish-y stuff. (We’ll have to save killing off sexually active women for another rant, sadly.) However, I don’t like my horror to read like a morality play, and that’s exactly how this ending comes across to me. Having our virtuous survivor girl kill the nice, honorable guy so that she can save her brother is interesting. Immediately punishing her, on the other hand, by killing off said brother in some bullshit horror version of “The Gift of the Maji” is cheap and annoying and ruins everything that was awesome about Iris killing Lucas in the first place.
Because I really can’t stress that enough — that moment was AWESOME. It’s a surprising move in a film like this, yet never comes off as inconsistent with Iris’s character and situation. I have sympathy for her, even though I think what she did was wrong. It is the kind of character ambiguity you rarely get to see in final girls. But to kill off the brother just so Iris can learn her lesson and figure out that she murdered someone for nothing . . . that’s just deeply, DEEPLY frustrating.
Horror can be about morality, but for Christ’s sake, if I wanted a sermon, I’d go to church. And really, I liked “The Gift of the Maji” when I read it in high school, too, but I think it might only work the first time you come across it.
Decent setup and some surprisingly good moments — but unnecessary repetition, useless characters, and that fucking ending bring it down hard.
Enver Gjokaj. It was a hard call, and Jeffrey Combs gets a very close second place — but I think Gjokaj ultimately has the more challenging role.
Learn to Google before you accept strange invitations to strange places from strange men, offering strange yet wonderful things you should damn well know is too good to be true.