Furnace, Ohio. Cody (Mike Dwyer) is so down on his luck that he steals a Toyota from outside a church and can’t even make a deal to sell it to a fence – then is spooked into crashing it into a tree by a tailgating black van. A smooth-talking stranger in an expensive coat (Seth Hammond) pops out of the van and takes an interest, sympathising with the loser – who has trouble with loan sharks and is smitten with a stripper – and offering him a big mystery opportunity.
After accepting, he’s sack-hooded and driven around … then finds himself in a building that looks like a community centre draped with flags and chintz and among eight similarly-desperate randoms who will compete in an elimination contest for the benefit of a horde of gibbering gamblers who wear cheap plastic masks. The compere now wears a lion mask, and the games range from off-brand Monopoly and musical chairs (‘you’ve all played this one before’) through psychological tricks about who’s willing to give their name away and tell their story to increasingly violent, gruesome and nebulous acts. The competitors all assume that the losers are disposed of permanently, but that’s mostly kept from them – though when one loser argues with the referee, he is bludgeoned with a golf club and the next game involves eating his brains.
This is a variant on a story that’s been told and retold quite a lot recently, perhaps with degrading reality TV and economic downturns in mind – the French 13 Tzamet1 and the Thai 13 Game of Death have both had American remakes, and variants like the house-sharing House of 9 and the simpler competition of Cheap Thrills proliferate. This has a lot of familiar elements, but most of them still work … the first reel that explores the central character’s dead-end lifestyle, a weighting which at least guarantees a spot on the final two, though the other competitors make for vivid cameos and half-told stories which make all the players numbered with orange spray paint interesting in themselves. Though, of course, the point of all this is to indict the callous, cruel, smug gamblers who would arrange such a contest, it’s undeniably a part of the strategy of all these movies that audiences start to guess who’s going to get eliminated next and picking favourites to survive or most hated to get eliminated. Maybe movies on this theme serve as a substitute for actually doing something like this – and the number of them on the market (this has taken a while to get released) suggest that there’s a universal appeal to the idea.
Director Nicholas Bushman, who co-wrote with leading man Mike Dwyer, has a nice line in unfussy, down-to-earth grimness and horror. Some of the contests are almost surreal – the child’s game played in deadly earnest still prompts a petulant tantrum from the guy who didn’t get a seat when the music stopped; something that seems to be a combination of Naked Twister and Cage-Fighting is seen only out of focus and in the aftermath as the shamed, bloody, humiliated survivors limp to the dressing room (a nasty detail – one is bleeding from the anus). Lion admits that this has been going on so long the organisers are running out of ideas for games, which makes it understandable – if a touch disappointing – that the final contest relies on a well-worn gambit that has already been the entire focus of another film in this cycle. Though the coda is affecting and creepy.
Among the other players are Keith David as an angry guy in a suit, Lyle Kanouse as an oversharing emu farmer from Kentucky, Tara Bellando as a dead-behind-the-eyes woman who might have been one of Cody’s schoolteachers, Kevin Crowley as a thug in a headband, Benjamin Franklin Crawford Wallace as a strung-out kid who can barely stand, and Katie Keene as a legacy player in this game. It has good use of source music and a line in pointed patter, but also knows when to shut up and play serious.