Imagine the game Jumanji if adapted by the mind of Stephen King and directed into a movie by Rob Zombie. That is our best attempt at a one sentence description of the new feature film, Game of Death that thrilled audiences with its city premiere at the 2017 Toronto After Dark Film Festival.
The film opens with the introduction to a group of seven young adults who while partying together around a house pool stumble across a peculiar board game that looks like something right out of the 1980’s. Following the instructions, each participant puts their finger on a gameboard skull when an unexpected pin pricks their finger drawing blood. One reluctant game player immediately concerns himself with the possibility of being infected by AIDS. But AIDS will be the least of his concerns. The center skull on the board flashes a number and a player reads a game card which details how the existing players must kills someone before time runs out or they themselves will be terminated. It all sounds rather ridiculous enough to the group until one of them has their head explode without warning. So as the game counts down a double digit number of expected deaths, the individuals go from innocent teenagers to all-out killers lest they suffer the same exploding head trick as their peers.
Directors Sebastien Landry and Laruence Morais-Lagace (both of which also share writing credits) take what could/should have been a low budget idea and turn it into a rollickingly violent crowd pleaser that will have audiences conflicted watching outrageous acts of violence with pleasurable ear-to-ear grins. Nothing about Game of Death shouts low budget. From the head explosions to the more interesting methods of murder, Game of Death has the gloss and feel of a big effects budget film. It masterfully crafts an exciting tale that will undoubtedly lead to a ‘what would we do?’ question and answer session on the drive home from the theatre.
Each character has propelled survival momentum and the tactics and thought processes of each individual is both believable and (gulp) at times relatable. One might not relate to all characters, but you will unquestionably know a friend or family member who if put in the same situation would adopt the ideals of the more violent provocateurs. And as the group gets separated based on moral ambiguity the plot only further thickens like clotted blood. There is no particular character one might stand behind and cheer, but the resulting fates will test your ability to sit in your theatre chair and not jump with a shout of appreciation for the kills.
A wacky authority figure inserted into the second act to both stretch the running time and to develop some humor is the films only misstep. The character was just a bit much for a film that was more Jigsaw than Jumanji.
Now days removed from the original screening, there is so much of Game of Death that continues to stay with me and provide me with recalled entertainment value. It is clearly one of the best horror movies of the year and unquestionably one of the most satisfying.