Would you like to play a game?
One of the most popular subgenres of horror in recent years, if it can really be called one, is the game movie. Popularized mostly by films like Saw, these are films in which our unlucky heroes and victims find themselves trapped in the midst of some clever psychopath’s demented puzzle room or game parlor, having to solve some contraption or play some game of chance or skill to earn their freedom and survival.
Oftentimes, these films tend to fall into the umbrella of ‘torture porn,’ where the draw is just how brutal and messy these games can get. They’re designed to subject our protagonists to rigorous, painful tasks and enigmas, often to teach them some lesson or enact some act of revenge or recompense. Other times, the game is simply a gimmick, the framework to tell a familiar story with a new twist. And, occasionally, the game serves as a clever, genuinely interesting centerpiece for an inventive, unique horror experience.
Either way, there’s a mountain of these films out there nowadays, and sorting through the ‘meh’ to get to the great can be daunting. Here’s a few of my personal favorites for your enjoyment this Halloween season.
Probably the most well-known game-themed horror movie of all time, spawning a massively successful and expansive franchise in its wake, the original 2004 Saw is still one of the best the concept has to offer. Gruesome and brutal, but also quick and efficient due to its low budget, the film is actually more of a crime drama and mystery film than the torture parade the latter installments would become, a prime example of how a smaller cast and resource pool can actually make for a more creative, economic film. And yet, even being such an early prototype for the series, every major staple is established here, both visually and thematically. It really is the gold standard for launching a franchise. And, out of all the film’s it would spawn (which eventually became gory soap operas), the first Saw still has the best twist ending of the bunch. It’s well worth the watch, even if (like me) you have little fondness for what would come later.
Cube is sort of the prototype for Saw, in a way, paving the way for the later film’s twisted games with its own escape-room premise. Released in 1997, the film follows a group of strangers who find themselves trapped in a mysterious prison made up of interlocking, ever-shifting rooms arranged in a geometric pattern. Some of these rooms are safe, while others contain deadly traps of all kinds. These lost souls must attempt to escape The Cube, avoiding death at every corner from their treacherous surroundings, as well as the steadily-unraveling morale of the group. Full of fun, unique deaths and a heady, mysterious sci-fi plot, Cube definitely stands the test of time. Math nerds, this is a horror film made specifically for you. Also, it’s Canadian!
The Hunt caused quite the stir when it was released in 2020, and for good reason. Deliberately capitalizing on the increasing political divide between the right and left in the United States, the film follows a group of rich liberals who capture and hunt conservatives for sport. Intended as satire (which, as you can imagine, was largely lost on most people), the film was marred with controversy even before a single frame was shown, as reactionaries from both sides of the aisle protested the film’s plot after its first synopsis was released. As for the film itself, the thematic elements are a little half-baked, and it doesn’t quite hit its mark as the satirical work it set out to be (much like The Purge). But it’s an effective thriller, led by a fantastic cast, and is definitely one of the best modern Most Dangerous Game retellings available. If you can put aside your own political beliefs for a bit (because, honestly, it’s going to mock you regardless of your leanings), it’s a fun enough ride on its own merits.
Ready or Not
I briefly mentioned this last year when we were talking about horror’s best heroines, but it merits another shout out here: Ready or Not is one of the best, most satisfying horror films in years. Directed by creative team Radio Silence (who went on to revive Scream with their amazing 2021 installment), the film is centered on a deadly game of hide and seek played by an unsuspecting newly-married woman and her devil-worshipping, board-game magnate in-laws. Brilliantly written, unpredictably subversive, and morbidly hilarious (and with a strong ‘eat the rich’ thematic skeleton), Ready or Not will have you laughing one minute and clenching your teeth the next. I haven’t rooted for a protagonist in a horror film like this in ages, and haven’t really encountered anything like it since. Take notes, Hollywood: Samara Weaving should be in everything.
Would You Rather?
Starring X’s Brittany Snow and cult horror icon Jeffrey Combs, Would You Rather is a cruel, uncomfortable take on the classic party game of the same name. Our protagonist is Iris, who’s cancer-stricken brother needs extensive medical attention she can’t afford, and who finds herself invited to the home of a wealthy philanthropist with the promise of winning the money she needs. But instead of a charitable man and a harmless parlor game, she finds herself trapped in a torturous nightmare where she has to choose the terrors than she’s ultimately subjected to. This film is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, given its mean-spirited nature, but if you’ve got the stomach for violence, you could do much worse than Would You Rather?. Just avoid this one if you hate eye trauma, because (as the poster suggests) there’s a doozy of a scene late in the film that’ll churn your stomach.
And really, that just scratches the surface for how deep this particular niche goes. Hostel, The Belko Experiment, Knock Knock, Ouija: Origin of Evil. The list goes on. And those are just the decent ones. There’s a seemingly unending list of mediocre-to-terrible game-based horror flicks to choose from if you just want something dumb to watch while drinking, from Escape Room to Truth or Dare.
Take your pick! You’ve certainly got options.
What’s your favorite game horror flick? Let me know in the comments!
And Happy Halloween!