My notes on 3 Hours Until Dead, out on digital platforms now.Richard Connell’s ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ (1924), the one about the Russian General who hunts human prey on a remote island, is among the most-adapted and –imitated stories. The classic 1932 film, also known as The Hounds of Zaroff, has had several official and dozens of unofficial remakes, and the premise is echoed by the likes of Rogue Male, First Blood, Hard Target and Hostel and all their variants and spinoffs. Almost every action-oriented TV show, from The Man From UNCLE to Dollhouse, has done a ‘most dangerous game’ episode, and many recent films in the captivity, torture, survival and endurance sub-genres of horror have villains who are descendants of General Zaroff, the original of the ‘rich sicko’ archetype of predatory bad guy.
The most unusual aspect of this low-budget picture is that it isn’t just an imitation of ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ – like, say, the barely-dead-in-its-grave Hard Target 2 – but an actual adaptation, which uses (and updates) Connell’s characters as well as his premise. Considering that, it’s mean-spirited of director Steven LaMorte and screenwriter J. Amanda Sabater not to give Connell an onscreen credit – though apparently the film was shot under his title before getting stuck with the nondescript 3 Hours Till Dead (which isn’t even accurate – there’s no deadline to the game) or the slightly more apt Never Leave Alive. More unusually, especially for a film built around the star presence of a wrestler, this works better as a character drama than an action piece – the direction is nervous and vague, with the camera often getting too close and bungling the shocks and suspense pieces, and the stunt/fight choreography is elementary.
After a precis-like prologue in which characters we never really meet get killed on the island, the film takes time to build character before a shipwreck – conveyed by poor CGI and shaky-cam – deposits celebrity hunter Rick Rainsford (John Hennigan), photographer Anna Christie (Michelle Taylor) and a wounded steward (J. Michael Evans) on the island, where they encounter big bald Ivan (Joseph Gatt) and scarred Colonel Zaroff (Eric Etebari). Connell’s Zaroff was a white Russian sadist – a couple of remakes of the property turned him into a Nazi – but now he’s an ex-KGB goon sought for war crimes. This Rainsford is an interesting amalgam of the big game hunter Joel McCrea played in the first film version and the drunk played by Robert Armstrong – a washed-up celeb who has appeared in a reality TV show, who has to get his moxie back (and dry out) while being hunted. The woman and the goon are likewise given a little more heft than usual, and there’s some sly humour as Anna needles the great hunter for being in such a sorry state he can’t even hunt a rabbit for their supper. Oddly, a key aspect of the original is mirror-imaged … in most versions, the resourceful prey (proving himself the ‘most dangerous game’) rigs up booby traps to bring down his better-armed opponent, but here Zaroff has covered his island with jungle traps, tripwires, etc. Even Rainsford points out that this isn’t exactly sporting.
The short story is a model of economy, and the 1932 film – dashed off by Ernest B. Schoedsack (and co-director Irving Pichel) on the sets of the in-production King Kong while waiting for the modelwork to be completed – is a little miracle of plotting. By contrast, this gets sloppy – the ‘rules’ of the hunt are ill-defined, and one wonders what kind of big game hunter thrill Zaroff would get if his prey were speared by punji sticks or bopped by a battering ram on ropes while he was sat back at his camp admiring his stuck-on scar in a handy mirror. Rick and Anna survive perils – including quicksand, landmines and Ivan – before the climax, but mostly because they have to for the story to work … and what ought to be an epic punch-up between a reinvigorated Rick and the dastardly villain is over with before it’s really begun (admittedly, Connell does his big fight in an ellipsis) and Zaroff’s fate isn’t as satisfying as Leslie Banks in the 1932 film because this production doesn’t stretch to a dog-handler or a pack of vicious hounds suitable for turning on their master.