Horror: Re-defining the Genre in the Modern Era – Stay Alive

Stay Alive
Directed by William Brent Bell (2006)

By Kat Lawson

The name of this game is “Stay Alive”, we don’t know much else other than we’re not supposed to have it.

In recent years there’s been more and more research time and money been devoted to supposedly proving that horror films, violent video games and alternative (usually metal) music are the reason young people go on murderous rampages, commit sadistic acts of torture or shoot up their school. Stay Alive takes things one step further producing a horror film with a horror survival game at its centre where surviving the game is the key to staying alive, completely blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

With posters and DVD covers reminiscent of those of Hostel or Saw, with its red and black colour scheme and seemingly random (possibly dismembered) body parts, Stay Alive looks like it could fit right in amongst the list of modern Splatter films written off as torture porn. However it is definitely not one to judge by its cover. If you’re looking for something with plenty of blood, guts and gore I’d stick to the likes of Hostel orSaw, but if you’re after a bit different, a bit less fake blood and bit more eerie Stay Alive is one worth watching.

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The lives of a small group of friends in their early 20s are turned upside down upon the discovery of video game Stay Alive. Still being Bata tested and not yet ready for general release, Stay Aliveis a horror survival game based on the stories of real life serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, also known as the Blood Countess.
Bata tester Loomis and his housemates are the first ones to get their hands on the game and only hours after their characters die in the game all three are found dead, dying exactly the same way as they did in the game. At Loomis’ funeral his sister donates his old games to his best friend Hutch, one of the titles being Stay Alive. The funeral is also where Hutch meets Abigail, an old friend of Sarah, one of Loomis’ housemates, who has a habit of taking Polaroid photos of everything.
Hutch, along with girlfriend October, her brother Phineus and their friend Swink are also big gamers with October and Phineus owning an internet cafe. That night the group, joined by Abigail, and Hutch’s boss Miller decide to playStay Alive, with Phineus claiming the only thing they know about it is that they shouldn’t have it. Miller is the first to die in the game, the next day he is found dead, dying the exact same way as he died in the game.
As the connection between the game and the deaths of their friends becomes clear, the group begin researching the legend of Elizabeth Bathory (which has the same basis as the real life Elizabeth Bathory but is re-written to take place at on a plantation in Louisiana rather than a castle/estate in Eastern Europe) realising that the prater they had to recite at the beginning of the game acted like a séance raising Bathory’s spirit, and discover the only way to stop the deaths is to find her body, put nails through her and burn her. This challenge becomes more and more difficult though when the group realise the game is playing itself, completely erasing the line between reality and fiction.
Whilst attempting to track down the game developer*, they realise they have found Gerouge, that the game was made there and past the rusting gates at the end of the overgrown back garden is the cemetery from the game and beyond that Bathory’s tower, the remaining members of the group find their way into her tower, determined to put an end to her reign of torture.
The film closes with the game being put on shelves in the local video game store ready for general release.
*The unrated Director’s Cut version of the film provides much more insight into the legend of Bathory and the development of the game, including the game developer himself whose character is completely cut from the theatrical release.

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Opening at number 3 in the USA, eclipsing the $11.7Million production budget in its opening weekend and grossing over $27Million worldwide, Stay Alive received a fairly decent reception but was not quite as well received by critics, although the Director’s Cut version gathered more favourable reviews than the original theatrical release.

Stay Alive may not be as violent or extreme as some of its contemporaries, Saw III, The Hills Have Eyes (remake) and Silent Hill all opened the same year, you don’t need to hide behind the cushions to make it through the film, it only has few jumpy throwing your popcorn in the air type of moments  – but those it does have are worth waiting for, and has so little gore its Wikipedia page doesn’t list how many gallons of fake blood were used in production, but it still packs a punch.  And what it lacks in shock value and gore it makes up for in story and originality.

Whilst many horror films, or indeed films from any other genre, spawn video games or are developed from video games, and the concept of the blurring of lines between fiction and reality or the idea of things from entertainment mediums crossing over into life and haunting characters in a film (think Samara in The Ring) is nothing new,Stay Alive is still one of only a very small number of films where a video game is so completely at its heart.

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Even if game itself is not enough to give you the creeps with its ghostly little girls and concubine zombies, its premise still gives you a lot to think about beyond its distorted reality and malevolent video game characters. It deals with the issues of what effects video games actually have on the human brain and how easy it is to lose all grip on reality. As well as exploring how easy it is for the powers that be to dictate history, striking all accounts from public records and letting a serial killer spend a few centuries as nothing more than a ghost story.

And like so many horror stories that have gone before it, Stay Alive leaves you wondering if you really know what is (or has been) going on in your own town or city, how much do you really know about your own local history and are some secrets best left dead and buried? Or at least walled up in a tower?

You die in the game – You die for real.