“Would You Rather” falls somewhere on the spectrum between torture porn (innocents forced to endure hideous torments for no reason) and psychological horror (they are given a choice between torments)—and somewhat mysteriously works.
Sure, the movie might have benefited from a little star power; the closest thing it has to a name is Brittany Snow, the poor man’s Hayden Panettiere. But the film works because the cast all seem vaguely recognizable without actually calling to mind previous credits. Screenwriter Steffen Schlachtenhaufen’s premise is simple: Eight men and women, all of them in need of money, gather for a dinner party at the home of an eccentric philanthropist (Jeffrey Combs). But unlike the rattling skeletons and severed heads of the party thrown by Vincent Price in “House on Haunted Hill,” this party involves something both more childish and more sinister: a game of Would You Rather. As in “Would you rather send an electric shock through your body, or the person sitting to your right?”
The great fun of the movie and the reason its mounting violence is forgivable is that you invariably put yourself in the characters’ shoes—who would you rather shock? Would you rather stab someone in the thigh or slash someone else three times with a stick? Playing along can create an ugly sensation of moral failure that keeps the film from sliding into banality and the characters from becoming stick figures. When one partygoer rationalizes stabbing an elderly woman in the thigh because she’s in a wheelchair, the slope has turned slippery because you totally understand his reasoning.
The cast are asked to do very little other than convey anger, terror, and pain, but all do so admirably (save Sasha Grey, who sounds as if she’s always been interrupted with a mouthful of caramels). Director David Guy Levy keeps the momentum building and even goes the extra mile of throwing in a handful of red herrings that kick the movie up a notch from serviceable to chilling. As the bodies mount and the challenges grow increasingly gruesome, the players turn from quivering to committed. Their backstories are left mostly fuzzy (except for Snow’s leukemia-stricken brother), which adds a queasiness to rooting for anyone to win. Are they being selfless or greedy? Is anyone more deserving? But then, there’s a queasiness to just watching events inexorably unfold and wondering how you would hold up in the same situation. By the time a barrel of water is wheeled out and two minutes are put on the clock, you may consider practicing holding your breath every day. You know, just in case.
Critic’s Score: B+
Directed by David Guy Levy
Cast by Geralyn Flood, Ivy Isenberg
Starring Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs, Sasha Grey