In it, a reporter and her husband raced against time to save themselves once they realized they had viewed a cursed videotape that promised to deliver them to Death’s Door seven days after watching it. Writers Hiroshi Takahashi and Kôji Suzuki’s both ably handled suspense and character development within the ticking clock construct, allowing audiences to go along for the ride while peeling back the layers of the mystery surrounding the tape and its disturbing imagery. The end result was a cultural phenomenon that led to sequels, remakes, and imitators, but none of them truly matched the narrative power of the original.
But our collective fascination with comparable urban legends has been the footing for many a good film franchise, and now we can add a little ‘something something’ titled Elevator Game to the list. While it lacks the complexity and emotional weight of Ringu, it does present viewers with glimpse into a dark place – the Red World – just beyond our reach unless we’re willing to risk it all, follow some simple rules (like ‘don’t look at the Fifth Floor Woman’), and breach that barrier between reality and what lies beyond.
As you might guess, someone decides ‘wouldn’t it be fun to try,’ and – of course – it turns out to be a young’uns. Not one but several internet ghostbusters embark on the shared journey – all for the benefit of hits and clicks to their online channel – entering a nightmare they never thought possible. Will they make it out alive? Will they undo the fabric of the universe? And – most importantly – can they keep their only video sponsor?
Only time will tell …
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“Supernatural Horror, based on the eponymous online phenomenon, a ritual conducted in an elevator, in which players attempt to travel to another dimension using a set of rules that can be found online.”
As per IMDB.com, Game shows directing duties were assumed by Rebekah McKendry, a name I recognized albeit I couldn’t quite remember from where.
A quick glance over her resume shows a work history largely (at this point) owed to both producer responsibilities alongside directing. It looks like her first time fully behind-the-camera for features was 2018’s holiday-themed Horror/SciFi All The Creatures Were Stirring for FallBack Plan Productions, an independent outfit from California. Interestingly enough, FallBack debut film – Absentia (2011) – is an exceeding well-done Horror I’ve seen and reviewed back in my Amazon.com Top 1,000 Reviewer days; I’m not sure that I have this one available on SciFiHistory.Net so I might need to do some searching to recover it for posterity’s sake. But I believe I recognized McKendry’s name most likely for her contributions to bringing 2022’s Glorious to life. I had wanted to see this much-advertised Horror headlined by Ryan Kwanten and J.K. Simmons, but I apparently wasn’t on the advanced screening lists at that time.
As for her work here?
Meh. It’s sometimes hard to make much of some directing efforts in the world of Horror features as so much of what makes the film work is both the narrative foundation and whatever visual trickery gets infused in the production process. As frights go, Game is pretty meager, almost razor thin with respect to gruesome effects and/or atmospheric delights. Although much ado is made in the script about the potential behind the ‘Red World,’ once we’re delivered there I’m at a loss as to see why it is all that elusive after all. In fact, the place only seems to have a single resident (i.e. the Fifth Floor Woman), everything is chromatically tinted red (for pretty obvious effect), and a fabulously under-used kinda/sorta flaming cross lighting the night sky. Those watching closely will understand perfectly where this light comes from, and it’s probably the feature’s best reveal, especially considering how frightless everything else in here truly is. So let’s just chalk up McKendry’s performance here as ‘serviceable.’
IMDB.com notes that Game’s script is attached to David Ian McKendry (I smell nepotism! I kid, I kid …) and Travis Seppala. Respectfully, Seppala’s apparently fairly new to the screenwriting gig (he has a few shorts listed on the profile, but this film and 2023’s Captive appear to be his big break into features). David Ian is, in fact, the director’s spouse; and his resume shows the aforementioned All The Creatures Were Stirring and Glorious as screen collaborations with his better half.
Without knowing where each writer’s contributions began and ended, it’s difficult to dish praise each appropriately and/or point fingers. The strength to an idea like Game presents – that being a modern era urban legend drawing the attention to those risk-taking vloggers – is that there’s likely a built-in audience who can grasp both the concept and its execution easily. Essentially, the exercise looks to prove or disprove the existence of this other reality, and no thought is put into the whole ‘what happens if we prove it’ aspect. However, there’s a mile-wide downside to it that plagued me until the latter half: what’s the purpose of playing a game wherein both winning and losing look to reward participants with death? These players rather dumbly – if not profoundly dumbly – go about the business of messing with All Things Strangeness without knowing precisely how to turn things off (and you knew they’d need to turn things off eventually). Is the big takeaway here nothing more than to demonstrate to audiences that we’ve raised a generation of thrill-seekers who don’t give a damn about their own lives? The fact that there is a way to (allegedly) close the bridge once it’s opened proves otherwise, and maybe – just maybe – we all should’ve known that going in. Granted, it would’ve made for a shorter picture, but that may not have been a bad thing.
As a critic, it isn’t always to review a film boasting almost entirely a young cast because – on the face of it – it’s fairly obvious that none of the players will likely display a level of maturity that suggests what they’ve doing might be a very bad idea. I think that’s one of the reasons – since Horror’s inception – these films have always focused on less-seasoned characters. In fact, the arrival of the more world-weary types usually bodes well for all involved (audiences, too) as it signals that finally there’s a potential voice of reason which might put us on a path toward an effective conclusion. That doesn’t happen in Game, but – once again – I suspect the flick’s core demographic wouldn’t have it any other way.
To the feature’s strength, it’s largely an ensemble piece. One of the big values to crafting screen stories this way is that each and every player not only suffers the shortcomings of their weakest talent but also reaps the benefits of the strongest; consequently, there’s a solid equilibrium to the group performance here, and no one comes off looking like … well … screen fodder (until they’re effectively reduced to screen fodder by the script, that is).
The biggest praise gets dished to Verity Marks. In the guise of ‘Chloe Young,’ she fills out the kinda/sorta everyman role – or what most closely looks like one in the whole adventure. As the resident researcher behind this vlog/group’s escapades, she both is a mover and a shaker here, delivering the exposition necessary to let her peers and the audience understand what’s going on. Though she deals with a lot of facts, she never quite lets any of them get in the away of her spirit of discovery; so it’s easy to appreciate and identify with what she does at each step along the way. Also, Gino Anania – as ‘Ryan Keaton’ – makes for a convincing male counterpart to share in the mischief. While I think the script didn’t quite know what to do with him in the first half (without spoiling too much, he operates from a somewhat hidden agenda that fuels the film’s main premise), the actor proves himself capable of delivering more than just a few clever, confused faces while eavesdropping on the group’s business talk from an adjacent room in the set-up.
The Bottom Line
Without making too much of this, I think it’s safe to conclude that this particular Game looks and works very much like any reasonably-budgeted thriller from the heydays of home video. It doesn’t break any barriers – as I suggested above, it’s structurally somewhat derivative of some vastly superior rights not unlike Ringu – and it goes about its business of putting the young, restless, and uninitiated through some efficient though predictable scares. Its risks are, sadly, somewhat safe bets; and nothing in here ever quite rises to the level necessary to make it anything greater than a mildly effective diversion. It’s forgettable … but you’ll likely have fun with it while watching.
What’s sad about it is that with a bit more time, effort, cash, and (most importantly) story, it could easily have raised the bar a notch or two for what was achievable with an origins-style Horror. I’ve always been a fan of somewhat ‘bare bones’ production, even downright guerilla-style storytelling, especially when it only tells you enough of a story to leave you wanting more. While Game looks very affordable, it just never makes me fear its beyond enough at any stop along its merry way; as a result, its characters truly end up looking more brainless than they do reckless, and I invest very little in their survival as a consequence. When I don’t care whether they make it out alive or not, there’s very little prospect I’ll recall even seeing this one this time next year.
See what I mean? Too many questions spoil the thrill.
Elevator Game (2023) was produced by Fearworks, Buffalo Gal Pictures, Head Gear Films, Manitoba Film & Music, and Metrol Technology. From what I’ve been able to find online, the project is viewable either on Shudder or is available for purchase from Amazon’s Prime Video. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I thought that the sights-and-sounds provided were pretty exceptional; there’s clearly not an awful lot that’s been expended on production details here – the sets are only occasionally colorful but have an almost TV grade quality to them at times – but it works well enough to tell the story. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? As I watched this one entirely via streaming, there were no special features to consider.
Elevator Game is the kind of visual exercise that really only works because it pits a bunch of inexperienced youngsters willing to do something downright stupid against the world of the Supernatural … and you pretty much grasp going in that not everyone is going to get out alive. Much like its cast of characters relish the opportunity to come face-to-face with a brush with death, so does an audience vicariously, albeit we’re doing the same from the comfort of our own home. However, this script could’ve used a bit more polish – its world-building never quite rises to the required heights here, and I’m left wondering what all the fuss was about. The fact that it ends with nothing more than the promise of a sequel also cheapens the thrill, making this one feel a bit too much like a cash grab for whatever spectators are willing to give it a whirl.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Shudder provided me with complimentary streaming access to Elevator Game (2023) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this view. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.