['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that spotlights movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with an emphasis on the obscure and the misunderstood. This special Halloween edition is the first of a two part look at couple of horror films.]

It's that time of year again, Halloween, which means a couple of things: candy, costumes, and scary movies. And since this column is all about video game movies, how about a look at some scary video game movies? And there's a couple out there, like Silent Hill for example. But what about films that aren't simply scary because of the games they're based upon are also supposed to be? Well, a popular theme in most film dealing with video games that are not based upon one is the concept of video games coming alive, and asking what would happen if pixelated or polygonal character crossed over to the real world. And some filmmakers happen to find this idea "frightening"... two of which we'll be talking about, Stay Alive and How To Build A Monster.

[Click through for more Halloween scariness!]

STAY ALIVE

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/stayalive1.jpg

First let's take look at Stay Alive, which was released earlier this year, and was quickly washed away by the other summer blockbusters of 2006.

The film is your basic big budget Hollywood horror flick, which these days means it's a Ring clone, or at least features a number of its trademarks: lush cinematography, a gaggle of pretty looking, and totally hip young folks (despite the fact that the cast features Frankie Muniz from TV's Malcolm in the Middle, who's running neck and neck with Fred Savage as cutest male kid star that hasn't aged all that well), and even creepy undead little girls with long black hair, albeit in video game form.

The funny thing about video game movies is that when you have folks behind the scenes who are actually gamers (one of Stay Alive's consultants was CliffyB), it still manages to get much of the little things wrong. Take the opening for instance, which features scenes from the made up game Stay Alive, a survival horror action romp; the graphics are so good that they're simply unbelievable. This is inter-cut with the player "on the other side of the screen" who's one gaming stereotype piled on top of another; a hyper, yet sorta cool, nerd that drinks Red Bull. He also utters the first real-life game reference at the 3:44 mark, something about Fatal Frame, to show the audience that the filmmakers "really know what they're talking about!"

So the nerd plays the game for a bit, then dies in it. The whole experience leaves him spooked, so he wanders about the house to investigate the source of some noise, which in this case is his roommates having sex who he casually walks in on, and allowing a whole new batch of stereotypes to enter the picture (you know, promiscuous sex and all, though the inclusion of the guy wearing a pig mask is a curious addition). Soon he starts imagining that the game's bad guys are real and in his house, then next thing you know he's dead, and in the same exact manner as his character died in the game.

Enter Hutch, the film's main character, and friend of the now dead nerd. It's established very early on that this guy is also someone who knows a thing or two about games, via the Silent Hill 4 discussion between himself and his coworker/buddy (it's almost amazing how real life gaming talk can come off as so disingenuous on the silver screen). Immediately he hears of the death and then meets his dead pal's sister or something, aka the token main character's squeeze, who in turn passes along to Hutch the dead nerd's briefcase, which includes a bunch of games. He then meets up with his other friends, a pair of cool kids portrayed by of late twenty-something actors trying to act five years younger and just missing the mark.

One must admit that at this point, the filmmakers have done a wonderful job at introducing a bunch of folks that no one in the audience would mind seeing die gruesomely. It's revealed by the annoying cool kid that dead nerd (their names are seriously not important in this one) was play-testing Stay Alive, a totally hot and awesome game that anyone would kill for the chance to try out, so they all decide to honor the memory of their fallen friend by playing it. And later that evening they all gather, along with Frankie Muniz's character, who turns out to be the spastic and runty nerd that's also sensitive, as well as the coworker/buddy character from before, who joins in on the fun online, from his office.

After each person creates their virtual self in the game, and spout a number of inane lines that is supposed to further build street cred with the gamer audience (such as "Voice activated? That's next generation technology!", or "People who say size doesn't matter never played a first person shooter" which this reviewer still doesn't know what is supposed to mean, or using the Konami code to active a nude cheat), they all go about on their own adventures in the game world. After a few hours, the coworker/buddy character, who's the on edge corporate type, gets killed and everyone else decides to call it a night.

And just as the guy logs off and decides to head for home, he hears a noise... Every horror flick has its unsettling noise, such as Friday the 13th's "kill, kill, kill" whispered chant, or the electronic hum and static from the tape in the Ring. So what does Stay Alive employ? The rattling sound from a vibrating game controller. Yup.... Anyway, what killed him in the game, which is a ghastly looking woman, manifests itself in the real world and does it's thing once again.

As one might guess, that's how the rest of the movie works. The game starts picking off Hutch's friends off in real life one by one. Additional horror movie standards then begin to pop up: Hutch becomes a suspect of the deaths due to him having a relationship with each victim, his friends think he's crazy for suggesting that a video game might be responsible for murder, plus there's flashbacks to his trouble youth, this one involving fire, which you just know is going to rear its head somehow later on.

Plus the really obnoxious friend does the "He's not really dead, he's just passed out because he smokes pot!" shtick, and there's even an investigation montage, which was first popularized in Seven. Eventuall, the jerky buddy is killed, and when the cops show up for this time, one of the investigators play the game for a few minutes and dies shortly thereafter (one might imagine that the intended effect was for someone in the audience to go "lol noob"), though not before he storms a Gamestop-looking store demanding answers, which introduces yet another gaming stereotype, the annoying game store clerk. The death of the cop sends Hutch and company on the run and increases the need to find the story behind the game.

This leads them to the game's designer and they learn that his creation is based on some old Southern tale of a noblewoman known as the Blood Countess (which of course, everyone in the movie's world are already extremely familiar with) and then they consult the token crazy old lady (the film takes place in New Orleans, so the woman has a particularly thick southern accent to drive home the idea that she's been around the block and seen it all, like all crazy old ladies in horror flicks, though this one sounds a lot like Elmer Fudd) for directions on how to kill the crazy evil ghost that's manifesting itself via the video game, which in turn is manifesting itself in the real world.

Yeah, it's kind of complicated and nothing is ever properly explained (perhaps this particular bit of info was but the aforementioned Fudd-speak just made it hard to hear), but basically the Blood Countess's M.O. used to bathe in young people's blood to stay young, and now she's at it again to become flesh once more; as the movie progresses, she starts out as a polygonal computer graphic and then becomes real. And near the end, she even gets naked!

Eventually they discover that the game world and the real world are connected, such as how Malcolm drops a weapon in the game space and it manifests in the flesh. Malcolm is also the subject of another fake out; you think he dies at one point, but not really, though by the time he shows up, the viewer is either totally not going to care in the end, or those that have been trying to following along with undoubtedly be confused by the game/real world logic that apparently even the filmmakers can't get right (the whole idea of dying in the video game means death in the real world, and conversely, staying alive in the game to stay alive in real life, is literally done away with at little over the two-thirds point).

In the end, you have your main hero Hutch saving the girl and overcoming his fear of fire to do away with the countess (who goes all Chris Cunningham at the very end), but there's an avenue for the sequel that will never happen, with a total Body Snatcher-esque ending with the game store clerk placing copies of the PS2 version of Stay Alive on store shelves.

Final Score...

All in all, a fairly abysmal film. It’s not even in the "so bad it's great" category. The fact that the movie is riddled with clichés isn't such a crime, or even how the logic it goes great lengths to set up is practically thrown out the window at a certain point, since that's what one expects from virtually every horror film, even the great ones. It just happens to be so mind-meltingly boring. But the primary problems here is how, for a video game movie, its not very video game-y at all. If you're going to use clichés, be funny about it, or even just load up on them. The Blood Countess in the end was just a scary lady, nothing special.

Pretty shocking considering that, not only was CliffyB involved, but both the co-writer Matthew Peterman and fellow writer/director William Brent Bell have said in numerous interviews that they are passionate gamers and channeled everything they knew about games into the script. You honestly couldn't tell from the movie.

FYI...

The version of the film that was reviewed is the unrated director's cut, which is apparently 15 minutes longer than the theatrical version from earlier this year. Apparently what was added, aside from boobs and the pot smoking, was a character and an entirely new subplot, and its almost impossible to determine who that might be since every single character was completely expendable and insignificant.

Perhaps one important detail to keep in mind is that, despite the fact that film was released by Disney (Stay Alive was used to re-launch the long dormant Hollywood Pictures brand), they only came in after the end and handled the distribution. The film's production was entire Brent Bell and Peterman's, and the entire movie was shot in only 25 days, which is an impressive feat.

BTW...

Meanwhile, How To Make A Monster, which is much like Stay Alive since it also asks what if video game creations crossed over to the other side, and is also an independent feature, couldn't be any different. First off, it’s actually a good movie! But to find out why, as well as more about it, everyone will just have to wait till this upcoming Thursday's regularly scheduled installment of Cinema Pixeldiso. Till then, Happy Halloween!

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]