03rd Jul2019

‘Play or Die’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Charley Palmer Rothwell, Roxane Mesquida, Hippolyte de Poucques, Daphné Huynh, Thomas Mustin, Marie Zabukovec, Laetitia Chambon, Helena Chambon | Written by Jacques Kluger, Amiel Bartana | Directed by Jacques Kluger

play-die-poster

Welcome to Paranoia, the ultimate escape game. Rule #1: Nothing is real. Rule #2: One of you will die.

Play or Die follows Lucas (Charley Palmer Rothwell) and Chloe (Roxane Mesquida) who – after some serious persuasion by Chloe – decide to participate in Paranoia, a very exclusive escape game. After solving a first riddle, they make it to the location of the finale in an abandoned mental hospital, lost in a frightening forest. There, four other participants are waiting on them; participants who, after only a couple of rooms into their “adventure,” all soon realize that only one of them will get out of there alive…

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that Play or Die was inspired by the likes of Hollywood movies like Escape Room but, as I was surprised to learn, this Euro-horror is actually based on a best-selling novel called Puzzle, by Franck Thilliez, which has apparently sold over 330,000 copies! Whether said book took inspiration from elsewhere, who knows? Yet even given the films original source material this is STILL a film about escape rooms and people being, essentially, tortured by an unseen madman. All of which, by now, are something of a cliche.

All these kinds of films – be it Escape Room or any of the Saw movies – all rely on the idea of elaborate [deadly] traps and puzzles; so, to that extent, it’s hard for any film within this small sub-genre to stand out from the crowd. Especially when said crowd is actually becoming more over-crowded by the day thanks to the success of the aforementioned Escape Room, which is already “inspiring” a myriad of clones. Yet Play or Die actually tries its damnedest to stand out; and it does so by cribbing aspects of giallo, in particular the work of Dario Argento. But that’s not a bad thing.

Visually Play or Die follows the seeming current trend in Euro-horror for very grey, very bleak looking visuals. However director Jacques Kluger and his cinematographer Danny Elsen also take inspiration from the neon-lit films of Dario Argento, using blues and reds to fill in shadows, and generate different moods within the films mental hospital setting. Yes it also gives the film something of an 80s aesthetic but I couldn’t help think of Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno all the while… I suppose it doesn’t help that there seems to be, besides the escape rooms traps, a black-gloved killer roaming the hospital halls attacking the games players too.

In terms of the sheer horror of Play or Die, the film walks a very fine line – thankfully never revelling in the torture of the players to the extremes of Saw but instead cutting away at the last moment, leaving the true horror to the imagination of the audience. That’s not to say the film is tame, it’s very much not – in fact there’s a number of gory scenes strew throughout the film, including a prolonged sequence that will make anyone afraid of the dentist think twice about ever going again!

As for the ending. Damn. I truly expected the script to go one way and for a loooong time it honestly looked like it was headed in that direction thanks to some SUPERB red herrings and mis-direction from co-writers Jacques Kluger and Amiel Bartana. In the end (pardon the pun) I can honestly say I did not see the conclusion coming, not by a long shot. Ultimately it’s the kind of  twisted off-kilter swerve in storytelling that Argento, or any giallo filmmaker for that matter, would be proud of. And one that raises my repect for Play or Die immeasurably.

***** 5/5

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