WOULD YOU RATHER and the problems faced when renting ‘indie horror’

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David Guy Levy’s Would You Rather is both way less gross than its premise suggests and WAY better than any reasonable horror fan would expect it to be.

Let’s deal with that second idea first and see if we can’t swoop around to the gore later, shall we?

When I say that the film is “better than any reasonable horror fan would expect” I’m not condscending and saying that the film is “surprisingly good” I’m just saying that there seem to be so many bad to mediocre movies on the market that it’s surprising to find one that’s so good.

Why in this day and age of VOD and same-day-as-limited-release do I find myself looking at each new horror release like a roulette wheel? Not one where I’m betting black or red, either, we’re talking significantly worse odds. Add to that that each of these rentals costs between $5-$10 and you’ve got yourself a quandary.

I think the problem is two-fold and we can split it into internal(problems with me) and external (problems with the world at large) factors.

Internal factors I can’t control and I shouldn’t complain about. Let’s sum that category up by saying: as my life gets busier and busier, I find myself having a lower tolerance for crap. I’m not above turning a film off thirty minutes in or setting a book down after a hundred pages. I’m not saying that I feel myself becoming snobbish, only that if I’m paying you (the author, filmmakers), you better live up to your end of the bargain and give me something or I’m not going to waste my time on your product.

External factors is where we get to the meat of this problem. When it comes to horror films that circumvent normal distribution methods (not to say that studio horror is any better, it’s not, there’s just a different set of problems there), there’s no good way to tell if the movie you’re about to rent is a diamond in the rough or amateurish dreck.

There are a three tips that I’ve found can help increase my odds of landing on the good stuff (these are things that have worked for me, not a how-to guide, relax):

Finding distributors you trust. Magnet and IFC Midnight seem to be the top two labels consistently releasing quality genre material. IFC Midnight released Would You Rather, and while they don’t have a perfect track record by any means, they also put out my two favorite genre films in a long time: Pontypool and Kill List. Those flicks bought them about 10 years of goodwill with me.

Find critics, not websites, that you trust. This one’s a little more complex. If you read sites like Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, etc. or mags like Fangoria or Rue Morgue: learn the by-lines. Don’t only pay attention to the critics that you agree with, but also try to keep tabs on the ones you don’t. Don’t just scroll down to the critic’s numerical rating, try and read what they’re saying and judge how their saying it. Our over-reliance on numerical grades is a topic for another rambling post (a 7.5 out of ten? What does that even mean? This is a film, not an algebra exam. Jesus.).

Follow the talent. See those names in front of the movie? They all mean something. If you only follow directors and actors that you like, you’re missing out on all the fresh talent. Look at your favorite low budget movie and see who the producers are, check out what else they’ve done and reward their talent by taking a chance on the other material they’ve worked on.

These tips beg the question: if we have these resources, why is renting a movie still such a crapshoot? Because (a) making a good movie is difficult and (b) we horror fans choose to enjoy a genre that is considered easy (or easier) to turn a profit in. Most times these films are funded like office lottery tickets, the goal being to pay the investors back as quickly as possible, not to make art. Yes, there are some very talented people using this money to create art, but that’s not the reason people are fitting the bill, let’s not lie to ourselves.

The other reason is that we, as a culture, are pretty predictable when you start pressing our nostalgia buttons. Take a look at most DTV or VOD horror flicks and you’ll notice that a bunch of them feature “horror royalty” in either a cameo or leading role. If Tony Todd or Sid Haig or Robert Englund show up in your movie, their cadre of die-hards are considered a built in audience.

Not only does nostalgia play a role in casting, but it can influence the aesthetic of a film or its advertising. If the producers of ____TITLES REDACTED_____ can convince your inner 15 year-old that their film recaptures the magic of the ’70s and ’80s films that you love, then you’re more likely to fork over your 10 bucks. This probably sounds hypocritical coming from the guy that wrote a novel set in 1988 that has hot-and-cold nostalgia running through its veins, but I like to think that’s different.

Now that stuff is off my chest let’s talk about Would You Rather and how much I like it, shall we?

In Would You Rather a group of down-on-their luck strangers is brought together to play a deadly version of the frat-house parlor-game “Would you Rather” for the perverted delight of their host, who has promised the winner their deepest desire.

Even though the concept reads very much like House on Haunted Hill for the Saw generation, the film is much more restrained than that.

I don’t think that it did, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me that Would You Rather began life as a stage play. Most of the action takes place in one room, the ideas it plays with are intelligent, and the bulk of the kills are low-key enough that they could be pulled off with minimal rigging.

This script is perfect for a film like this because the filmmakers don’t have to throw money at 15 different locations or a huge SFX budget, and can instead put that money into making the film look slick (which it very much does) and outfitting the cast with some real talent.

A mix of endearing character actors and full-out great perfromers, WYR is filled with familiar faces. Jeffery Combs is the closest the movie allows itself to go towards horror-geek-baiting stunt-casting, but the guy gives such an energetic performance that it never feels like the producers are only trying to take advantage of his Herbert West cache. Brittany Snow (remember her from that show about American Bandstand, American Dreams?  I liked that show) plays a more-than serviceable final girl and she’s joined by British heavy Jonny Coyne, John Heard, Eddie Steeples, and Sasha Grey (playing the most amusingly unlikable victim to grace the screen in some time).

Tonally the film walks a smart line. While not a straight-out horror comedy, it throws some welcome dark humor in to defuse some of the more ludicrous elements of the plot. These gags feel like the work of a confident director and screenwriter (Steffen Schlachtenhaufen) who are playing with the audience, not against them.

Even though the game within the movie promises that each task the participants face will be more gruesome than the last, the film is hardly a gorefest. In fact, Would You Rather shares more than its premise with the great William Castle, it seems to share his attitude toward onscreen violence(which he lifted from Hitchcock). There’s a lot more violence suggested than what gets shown. This works so that when there is a splatter-y moment, it hits that much harder (there’s even a moment of splat-schtick that had me laughing at an otherwise likable character’s demise).

Like the parlor game on which it’s based, Would You Rather is acutely aware of its novelty and the ease with which that novelty could go off-the-rails. It stocks itself with enough surprises and wit that it never feels repetitive, and it gets out the door swiftly enough that it could never be labeled as boring.

Bottom line: I’m very glad these people got my $6.99.

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