I realize the lack of originality in referring to Stay Alive as Stay Awake, but hell, does it ever fit! Beyond being free of original thought, this film makes its own case as the dumbest teen-slasher pic to emerge from a major studio in the post-Scream era. In a world of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Disturbing Behavior and Wes Craven’s Cursed, that’s really saying something.
Directed and co-written by The Devil Insider William Brent Bell, Stay Alive borrows the chief conceit of A Nightmare on Elm Street — die in a dream, you die in real life — and replaces “dream” with “video game.” Not Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, but the titular “underground” and unreleased game, which pits players’ avatars against 16th-century blood countess Elizabeth Bathory in a spooky mansion. Die during gameplay and you … well, we’ve covered that.
When that happens to his best friend, young Hutch (Jon Foster, 2013’s Mr. Jones) gathers his fellow gamers for a LAN party to see what’s what. This is where Stay Alive immediately goes off the pixelated rails, as you won’t care about any of his utterly vapid pals and their utterly stupid names — not his brooding girlfriend, October (Sophia Bush, 2007’s The Hitcher); not Swink (Frankie Muniz, TV’s Malcolm in the Middle), who wears a poker visor sideways and upside down because he’s “cool”; and especially not October’s über-annoying sibling, Phineus (Jimmi Simpson, Zodiac), he of the “Who Farted?” T-shirt and mannerisms that suggest a neglected prescription refill for Ritalin. (Upon its release, this film served as my introduction to Simpson, and it made me hate him. I’ve since seen him do great work several times over, but it demonstrates the danger of being saddled with thankless douchebag roles.)
The screenplay by Bell and writing/producing partner Matthew Peterman (Wer) is as predictable as a preschooler’s connect-the-dots worksheet. Every insipid move is a given; every inevitable kill is heralded in advance, like the midnight ride of Paul Revere. At least one of the de rigueur death sequences generates a doozy of a line, delivered in earnest grief: “Hutch, somebody ran my brother down in a horse-drawn carriage. I’m gonna find whoever did it and hurt them.” Neigh. —Rod Lott