Role playing games possess a certain escapist thrill, but what happens when fantasy creeps into reality? Today’s popular user-driven experience gets a nostalgic 1980s makeover in “Choose or Die,” the terrifying refrain in a game with extremely high stakes. The brisk and clever horror thriller pushes the idea of a cursed survival game to sinister ends, creating a world where every choice has cruel — and very real — consequences. Anchored by a scrappy coder heroine named Kayla (Iola Evans), whose tough exterior is armor for a difficult home life, the film offers a fresh take on a smart concept through the eyes of a compelling teenager. More leads like this, please.
“Choose or Die” is a perfect entry point into genre for younger viewers, one that will also satisfy old school diehards even as it takes some pointed (perhaps deserved?) jabs at them.
The film opens with a scene of domestic strife: A mother and son argue heatedly as Hal (Eddie Marsan) eavesdrops from his game cave in a detached state of apathy. Overhearing the accusation that “he’s living in the ’80s,” he boots up the old desktop and a green skull logo appears announcing the name of the game, Cursr, complete with chunky graphics that evoke early computer technology. As the cursor blinks out its crude code, eeriness quickly escalates to abject terror.
The game shifts suddenly from amusing tricks, like magically cracking a beer, to asking Hal the cryptic question: “His tongue or her ear?” Every time the game poses an impossible scenario like this, the repeating refrain echoes, “Choose or Die.” In order to continue the game and live to see another day, he must choose the lesser of two evils.
Three months and one very effective opening scene later, we meet Kayla at her grim office cleaning job, where she lines up for envelopes of cash that always seem to come up short. The film’s expressive visuals aren’t limited to its alluring retro graphic design; a wide shot of the hard-working women from outside a brightly lit office building at night has an immediate impact, setting an eerie tone and establishing a political subtext. Kayla’s only friend is Isaac (“Sex Education” star Asa Butterfield, valiantly attempting an American accent), a reclusive coder with a fetish for old computer parts.
One day, while looking through pieces to refurbish for Isaac to sell, Kayla discovers the dusty game in one of his many junk piles. Intrigued by the antique design, they decide to play, setting off a nightmarish chain of events that she immediately regrets. The game can sense where someone is, but it can also hear and predict what the people playing will say and do. Genre lovers will appreciate the film’s generous helping of gore, which is creative but not gratuitous. What’s more, it’s always anchored in Kayla’s emotional journey, as when a budding flirtation with a waitress is quickly cut short when the game makes her eat broken glass, or when her depressive mother’s brush with death forces her to realize she wants to live.
A voice appearance by the great Robert Englund (Freddie Krueger himself) lends some serious horror bona fides to the proceedings, and the terrific character actor Marsan (“Ray Donovan,” “Vice”) lends some heft in a small but pivotal role. Butterfield is the most bankable star by today’s standards, but he comfortably takes a back seat as the pining but supportive friend. Newcomer Evans is well cast as the scrappy teenager from a working-class background, balancing grit with vulnerability.
“Choose or Die” is the first feature from British director Toby Meakins, who co-wrote the script with TV writer Simon Allen (“Das Boot”) and Matthew James Wilkinson, a producer on a number of critically beloved British indies that include “Yesterday” (2019) and “Say Your Prayers” (2021). The trio from across the pond clearly know the value of a tight script and good casting, unlike the franchise-driven American horror films that too often rely on cheesy dialogue, wild plots, and outrageous violence to generate buzz. It’s a dangerous game to play, but “Choose or Die” has leveled up.
“Choose or Die” is currently streaming on Netflix.