If you’ve ever watched an episode of Family Guy, or played Truth or Dare with your fellow sleepover victims, then you get the gist of the parlor game Would You Rather? The idea is actually quite simple – you set up two competing dilemmas (usually unpleasant or equally off-putting, but sometimes enjoyable) and then question someone over their preference. The answer becomes fodder for conversation, debate, and future blackmail opportunities (“Did he really say he would rather sleep with a legless Sharon Stone than Angelina Jolie with the head of Leonard Nimoy?”). It’s all about personal choice, about how far you would go to avoid one possibility and/or embrace another.
So naturally this would become fodder for a horror film. After all, Saw proved that giving people a series of unwinnable, blood draining options, can lead to massive bank at the box office (seven installments into the franchise…and counting). With this latest twist on the so-called ‘torture porn’ dynamic, we get a rich industrialist something-or-other (Jeffrey Combs) who is willing to help people out of their contemporary financial situation. All they have to do is come to his house and participate in a tasty meal, a glass or two of wine, and a game of Would You Rather? Of course, there is a secret agenda to his invite. Apparently Shepard Lambrick likes to watch people squirm, and when thousands of dollars are on the line, humans will definitely defy their own morals.
Before we learn all this, we meet Iris (Brittany Snow). She is at the end of her rope. Her brother Raleigh (Logan Miller) has leukemia and needs some advanced medical treatment if he wants a chance to live. Of course, our heroine doesn’t have the money. She works, even tries to pick up extra employment here and there, but they are living paycheck to paycheck and the family home is being sold. Even worse, the last of their inheritance has dried up. Luckily, Raleigh’s doctor knows Shepard and is willing to make the proper introductions. Before you know it, Iris has agreed to participate in the party, joining other desperate people such as recovering alcoholic Conway (John Heard), shell shocked war vet Travis (Charlie Hofheimer), gambling addict Peter (Robb Wells), and a victim of domestic abuse Amy (Sasha Grey), among others.
At first, the challenges are simple: Iris doesn’t eat meat, but Shepard offers her $10,000 to consume her dinner of steak and foie gras. Conway hasn’t touched a drop in years, but when offered $50,000 and a bottle of vintage Scotch, it’s temptation time. Those who don’t wish to participate are threatened with violence from Shepard’s sadistic right hand man and valet, Bevans (Jonny Coyne). Eventually, the stakes are raised, our participants asked to do such inhuman things as beat each other with canes, stab each other with an ice pick, and survive several minutes submerged in water. If they don’t agree, they “leave the game.” Of course, there can only be one winner, though we’re never certain if Shepard will make good on his promises or not.
If you go in expecting an aggressive bit of arterial spray splatter, then Would You Rather? is not the film for you. Yes, there is a sequence or two when the body’s own physique fuel is offered up in bright red rivers, but these moments are few and far between. Instead, writer Steffen Schlachtenhaufen and director David Guy Levy want to go for the psychological horror angle, and for the most part, they succeed. Sure, the movie’s pacing is all over the map and the final result a bit baffling (the ending does pack a punch, however), yet there are times when you get lost in the “either or” aspect of the premise and pray you don’t see a wheelchair bound woman whipped with a wooden rod. A razor blade to the eyeball? Well, that’s another story.
What anchors our attention is the work by Combs, Snow, and Grey. The first name on this list is one of the great underappreciated actors working today. Ever see his performance in Peter Jackson’s pre-Middle Earth scary movie, The Frighteners? It’s almost Oscar worthy. While his career has been unceremoniously saddled in a basic B-movie funk, he always manages to rise above the material. Here, he is just as good. Similarly, Snow and Grey play variations of the same distressed damsel. The former finds all the right sympathetic notes. The latter becomes the kind of hissable harpy who deserves whatever comeuppance the movie meters out.
Too bad the rest of the cast are so forgettable. Even when the punishment focuses on distraught war vet Travis, there is nothing about this victim we care about or sympathize with. Similarly, a couple of other actors here appear present as nothing but fodder for furthering the game’s deadlier elements. Schlachtenhaufen may be at fault for providing some very limited characterization, but the bland, generic quality to many of the performers present doesn’t help. Levy is also to blame for some of the movie’s misgivings. He doesn’t know how to build up a healthy strategy for suspense. After each “game,” there is an expositional let down that simple drains away the dread. That means, the next time Shepard opens his mouth and offers the new set of options, we are starting from square one, fright wise.
Luckily, there’s enough here to keep us interested and engaged. Even when the choices are borderline buffoonish and/or the script throws in a wholly unnecessary bit of sexual assault (Shepard’s son Julian is a non-entity kept around for attempted rape reasons only), we want to see where all this goes, what price our winner will pay beyond the standard loss of humanity. In this case, the ending helps heal some of the wonky wounds left over from the previous 80 minutes. If given the choice between most of the low budget horror rip-offs and Would You Rather? , the choice is fairly simple. Pick this film and you’ll be mildly entertained. Anything else is a complete crap-shoot.