THE MOVIE Given how eagerly Hollywood rushes its total genre fare--horror, sci-fi, and their amalgamations--into theaters without screenings for review and then fast-tracks them to DVD, the fact that William Brent Bell's Stay Alive played for about an hour in theaters this past March and hits the home-entertainment shelf now doesn't send up any red flags. Aeon Flux, Ultraviolet, and, yes, even BloodRayne harbor certain idiosyncratic thrills that many a well-funded, well-marketed movie just can't match--hence the palpable excitement to give Stay Alive a go. The setup is rather intriguing: If you play this creepy underground video game and die, its nefarious demons come get you in real life--and the evil forces at play could be coming from some dead crazy old Eastern European woman who moved to New Orleans and liked to bathe in young women's blood to stay young. It's got the requisite young TV people cast--The O.C./ Entourage's Samaire Armstrong, One Tree Hill's Sophia Bush, Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz, Windfall/ Life as We Know It's Jon Foster, and a totally unrecognizable turn from Gilmore Girls' Milo Ventimiglia--and employs two personal faves: the great Adam fucking Goldberg and Wendell "the Bunk" Pierce, getting paid just to show up as a New Orleans homicide detective. What's not to like?
Pretty much everything, it turns out. Underlit and overcooked, Stay Alive takes its playful premise, pre-Katrina New Orleans setting, and game cast and squanders them all on a phoned-in thriller aiming for J-horror psychological creeps but only reaching junior-high spookiness. Credit writer/director Bell a little bit for at least trying to have some fun with the video-game reality bleeding into his character's movie reality--it's like he saw The Ring and thought, This would be so much better with a video game--but gave up halfway through shooting. All of which leaves Stay Alive with only mediocre unintentional laughs, such as when the ludicrously costumed Muniz--whose character is equal parts Malcolm smarty-pants and circa-1996 upside-down-visor-clad raver boy named, shit you not, Swink, as if "Twink" would be too obvious--squeaks, "Bitch, that's cheating. I'm not even dead yet."
THE DISC If it's a commentary on the pointlessness of genre DVD extras, Stay Alive's homeschooled interface is close to genius. Loading the DVD means having to navigate a very low-tech vid-game interface, where you have to select the right combination of character, weapon, and--not kidding--shirt to move on to the actual DVD menu. If you mess up, you get sent through some marginally scary series of graphics before the menu pops back up. Only lobotomized howler monkeys won't "solve" this rebus quickly, and once you do, you get barely any bonus features at all: a listless commentary track and a visual-effects reel that can't even compete with Fangoria. For some reason, though, methinks the Stay Alive DVD as consumer product meta-commentary might be slightly outside its ken.