The ouija board was originally marketed as an amusing pastime – like Monopoly or Snakes and Ladders, which is why the copyright with the thing rests with toymakers Hasbro, who have launched it as a film franchise alongside their Transformers and GI Joe heavyweights. A persistent strain of horror or fantasy has spun off from such pop cultural ephemera, from the Witchboard and Ouija films through to the likes of Jumanji, Beyond the Gates, Sequence Break, Knucklebones, Wishupon and even Pixels. In recent years, with the rise of ‘80s nostalgia, chunky, clunky, 8-bit gadgetry has come to seem as sinister as the cracked china faces and drowned bridesmaid look of creepy Victorian dolls.
Game of Death – a feature-length (if concise, at 73 minutes) redo of a premise originally issued as a web series – has one of the most basic premises in the genre. A bunch of slender, pretty, superficial young folks hanging about a pool get bored with taking selfies, fancying each other and doing light drugs one afternoon and chance upon the Game of Death, an ‘80s octagonal plaything which comes without a rule book but requires all the players to press their thumbs on buttons to start … whereupon hidden needles take blood from them, and they are given a countdown from 25 and told that 25 deaths are owed the game: the players must kill randoms or each other or else, at regular intervals, their heads will explode. It takes two bloody bonce-detonations, which spatter the survivors for the rest of the film, and the killing of a leering old neighbour half-suspected of being a sniper for the kids to get on board with what’s happening and set out to solve their problem without dying, even if it means 22 other people are due to get disposed of in ultra-gory fashion.
The five survivors – whose characters become more vivid in extremis, with the mildly neat irony that sketchy drug dealer Tyler (Erniel Baez Daniels) turns out to be the one with the most conscience – set out on a road trip, slaughtering a cyclist (who, to be fair, is a bit of a git) and some slightly less killworthy types (a jogger, a dog-loving highway trooper). Directors Sebastian Landry and Laurence Morais-Lagace present the deaths with some variety – reserving the most spectacular gore effects for characters who, by the ruthless rules of the game, more or less deserve their fates, but not dwelling on the splat when it comes to writing off the less deserving. At about the half-way point, the (provisional) survivors split into two couples and hare off on their own courses – Ashley (Emelia Hellman), who’d be a predestined final girl if this weren’t quite as ruthless as it seems to be, is teamed with Tyler, who was only at the party to deliver drugs along with pizza and must now be regretting latching on to the gang, while creepier Tom (Sanm Earle) and Beth (Victoria Diamond), devoted siblings who have an incest vibe, set out to save each other in a horribly logical, almost morally defensible manner by heading to the nearest palliative care home on the grounds that a killing spree among the terminally-ill won’t matter much … an attitude the film carefully undercuts by showing a devoted nurse and an ailing little girl who hasn’t given up yet.
A longer film might have problems relying on characters as obnoxious as this – as usual (cf: Battle Royale, The Belko Experiment) folks who say they’d rather die than become killers are outnumbered by characters who seem eager to drop all pretense of civilisation and run about with guns, bludgeons and other killing implements to stave off their own imminent and unmournable demises. Made in Canada where life is cheap, and Scanners must be revered the way documentaries about the post office dominate British film culture, this has a bright, zeitgeisty look, wet and dripping effects (including oldstyle Fangoria cover rubber and ketchup work), an attractive cast who soon get bloodied (there’s no time even for a quick wash), nice design for its no-backstory-asked-for-or-given killer game (does it need batteries?) and a rush to the finish line which defuses objections. The directors co-scripted with Edouard H.Bond and Philip Kalin-Hadju.