Parlor rooms. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one outside of a movie. But then again I’m not nearly as well to do as Shepard Lambrick, the billionaire philanthropist played by Jeffrey Combs in Would You Rather. He’s assembled eight deserving souls in his mansion with the intention of giving untold riches and the solution to all of life’s problems to one of them by the end of the night. All they have to do is play a little game. Most of them won’t survive.
The game is the familiar sleepover chestnut of “Would You Rather,” in which the players are forced to choose between one unpleasant situation or another, equally stomach-churning one. Would you rather eat a rancid steak or make out with your parents? The way most people play it, that’s an academic question at most. In Would You Rather, you have to actually perform the task in question within a short time limit, usually 15-30 seconds. You’re allowed to refuse, of course, provided you don’t mind being murdered.
Would You Rather is a welcome throwback to a bygone age of horror, in which a millionaire Vincent Price could invite a series of complete strangers to a haunted house and pay them money just to spend the night. Nowadays, the gap of wealth seems more relevant than ever before. Lambrick is genuinely willing to pay up to the night’s winner, but is also genuinely disgusted that so many people would willingly agree to unknown dangers just so they won’t have to solve their own problems. Not that he has the moral high ground. He’s the one responsible for the evening’s horrific murders, after all, and besides, he made them the offer. It’s not like they were bursting through his door begging for handouts.
The contestants include Brittany Snow, who needs the money to pay for her brother’s bone marrow transplant, and a string of competitors whose needs aren’t explicitly laid out. I suspect Would You Rather would have been more affecting if we knew why Enver Gjokaj (“Dollhouse”), June Squibb (“The Ghost Whisperer”), John Heard (“Prison Break”) or Sasha Grey (Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge) needed the money, so we’d have rooting interest for everyone involved, but that’s not what we get here. Would You Rather is more interested in forcing us into Snow’s perspective, knowing little more than she does, and approaching the other contestants as blank slates who will only prove themselves over the course of the game. But since we’re privy to everyone’s actual decisions, I can’t help but wonder if I’d have been even more involved if I knew what was really at stake for them.
Those decisions are creepy though, with electrocutions, stabbings and other gross unpleasantries in store over Would You Rather’s efficient 93-minute running time. Director David Guy Levy keeps the events moving quickly, and writer Steffen Schlachtenhaufen’s choice to give all Lambrick’s players a disturbingly brief shot clock to make their decisions prevents them – and the audience – from trying to outthink the situation, forcing them instead to simply make an impossible choice. With more room to breathe, you might have found yourself distracted by the concept or its mechanics – how does something like this get started, and how do they convince the house staff to go along with it in the first place? – but instead Would You Rather chugs along like a good little choo-choo, with only the ominous consequences looming overhead to occupy our thoughts when we're not pondering on the hypotheticals.
Would You Rather doesn’t quite stick the landing – the ending is perhaps predictable, and undercut by a “gotcha” musical cue that ruins any emotional impact – but the premise is strong, the pacing tight, and the cast is uniformly up to the task. Jeffrey Combs has this role down to a science, and is once again excellent as a complex, intellectual villain. The rest of the cast works well with their characters, justifying their unenviable decisions as best they can without actually explaining themselves, but Enver Gjokaj is once again a standout, as he was on “Dollhouse,” making one wonder how long Hollywood can possibly take to figure out that he’s ready for bigger roles. But at least for now he’s working in service of a lean, mean chillride that exercises your brain and your nerves at the same time.