The latest Netflix Original horror movie, “Choose or Die” has a wonderfully bizarre premise that recalls ‘80s and ’90s genre pics through and through. As someone who grew up in that era, and loved the filmmakers who looked at growing technology and asked what nightmares they could pull from it, I was pumped. That feeling didn’t last.
Of course, the main template here is Wes Craven’s masterful “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and not just because there’s a poster of it on the wall in the opening scene and Robert Englund, Freddy himself, offers his voice talents. But it also recalls an era of “terrifying technology” horror movies like “Ghost in the Machine,” “Shocker,” “Brainscan,” or “Dreamscape.” The problem is that this kind of surreal horror requires a great deal of visual personality, and director Toby Meakins just doesn’t bring to that to the table here. “Choose or Die” needed a Craven or a Cronenberg, visual masters who could creatively run with a concept this patently ridiculous and make their visions feel almost primal. At least until its bonkers final act, “Choose or Die” consistently fails to fulfill on the truly hallucinatory promise of its premise. Without that, it’s a choice that’s ultimately forgettable.
Iola Evans plays Kayla, a college student struggling with debt and a troubled mother on the edge of poverty. Her best friend is a programmer named Isaac (Asa Butterfield), who isn’t exactly a romantic lead but clearly likes Kayla enough to design a character after her in his new game. There’s no time for relationships though after Kayla stumbles on an old ‘80s game called “Curs>r,” which was also once this film’s better title. “Curs>r” is an old, Infocom-style text game, one of those early PC games in which players input text to push the story along. “Pick up the chalice? Yes or no?” That kind of thing.
Kayla discovers that the game has a cash prize that was never claimed, tying “Choose or Die” to a fun subculture of people who search for lost video games. However, this one is a little different. It adjusts itself based on what’s happening in the room with Kayla, and every level usually leads to bloodshed and a screen that reads “CHOOSE OR DIE” over and over again. Let’s just say that Kayla plays the first level at a diner and it ends with a poor waitress eating broken glass. It’s not exactly “Tetris.”
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Much like Freddy Krueger could in the “Nightmare” films, “Curs>r” shatters reality, often transporting Kayla to other places or putting those around her in jeopardy. However, there is no real structure to the terror here. Freddy was terrifying because he could enter your dreams. That’s relatable. We all have nightmares. “Choose or Die” too often feels like it’s making itself up as it goes along. It’s the difference between having a nightmare yourself and hearing about someone else’s. A film like “Choose or Die” needs to either go completely off the rails in its hallucinatory visuals to pull you in or set up some rules for viewers and protagonists to follow. Meakins and writer Simon Allen can’t decide, leading to a film that lacks in confidence and flair.
Part of the problem could have been budget. A lot of darkness and dry ice hide much of the action and a lot of the violence happens off camera—although, again, a stronger visual eye would have disguised lack of funds more than anything else. It’s a strangely dull film, at least until the final act, which finally gets truly weird in a captivating way (MVP Eddie Marsan, of course). At least the movie has a banging score by Liam Howlett of Prodigy that also places it in the techno-heavy horror era of the ‘80s. Still, you’d be wise to just choose to watch “Videodrome” again instead.