Choose or Die is streaming now on Netflix.
It’s been a brilliant few years for British horror. The arrival of creative marvels like Prano Bailey-Bond, Rose Glass and Rob Savage with Censor, Saint Maud and DASHCAM prove that horror is something the British know indelibly well. Each of their work folds into a greater cultural context that has left a mark on the UK, from the video-nasty panic to the gradual turn to secularism and the effect of the pandemic. However, Toby Meakins marks a dissent from the norm as he singles out our infatuation with looking back in Choose or Die, critiquing 1980s nostalgia and questioning its actual value.
Meakins’ directorial debut follows a cursed video game spread throughout the world like a virus, imbued with a supernatural autonomy – it offers a $100,000 cash prize that entices Iola Evans’ Kayla, a troubled college student who cares for her mentally unwell mother. With the support of her 80s-infatuated friend Isaac (Asa Butterfield), the two attempt to complete the game, quickly becoming aware of its real-world consequences.
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Choose or Die follows a similar structure and logic to films of a similar ilk like Jumanji, Zathura and Truth or Dare. It’s a ludic narrative where one is forced into playing a game, desperately trying to twist its own rules on its head to win in an unwinnable scenario. Much like an arcade penny machine, it has a fast and energetic pace, knowing the story it wants to tell and not wasting any time to get there. It’s also fun, which is an element often underappreciated in modern horror, but something incredibly prevalent in the works of iconic New Horror filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Joe Dante, undoubted inspirations for Choose or Die. Here the game’s code even runs on an ancient runic system similar to The Necronomicon.
An explicit critique of nostalgia as a form of life stagnation is presented through the game’s re-awakener, Hal (Eddie Marsan). He’s depicted as 80s-obsessed, the failed patriarch amidst a crumbling family, desperate to escape to his past in the pursuit of emulating a version of who he once was. Although Isaac is also quite the 80s nostalgic, there’s a self-awareness to him that separates the two. Hal depicts a certain kind of 80s nostalgia, bound up in a dangerous romanticisation that can have severe adverse effects if we choose to indulge in its allure.
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Choose or Die certainly maintains an ambivalent relationship to the 1980s nostalgia it represents, unlike Stranger Things or the contemporary take on Stephen King’s It. Robert Englund provides the voice of the mutilating, cursed retro artefact with a tongue-in-cheek nod to his 80s icon status. Meanwhile, the multi-coloured chiaroscuro lighting reflects a distinctly 1980s neon wash, enhancing the visual flair of scenes without undermining Meakins’ critique of modern culture’s nostalgic indulgence. Likewise, the in-game pixel art sequences are both a nice stylistic touch.
You can feel the Cronenbergian inspirations that flow through Meakins’ debut, in the body horror and themes on display, recalling Videodrome and ExistenZ. Some visceral horror genuinely gets under your skin and makes you squirm through insidious sound design, from the punctuating crackling of glass ground against teeth to the distorted screams of a terrified mother. Liam Howlett’s score also brings a dark, sharp mood to the film with its electronic thumping and distorted wailing that could only come from the founder of The Prodigy, accentuating some scenes with a bone-chilling electronic evil.
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If you’re looking for a fast, fun ride over the weekend while eating your weight in Easter eggs, you should definitely play Choose or Die. It’s rare to find a horror that combines a fun spirit with a genuinely horrifying queasiness, and it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome. Toby Meakins is undoubtedly a director to watch in the British independent horror scene, and I look forward to seeing what chilling story he devises next.
If you’re looking for a fast, fun ride over the weekend while eating your weight in Easter eggs, you should definitely play Choose or Die. It’s rare to find a horror that combines a fun spirit with a genuinely horrifying queasiness, and it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome.