B-Movies Extended: Nine Nifty Films About Games

Bibbs and Witney pick their favorite films about board games, scavenger hunts and other child's play.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (now up to an astonishing 107 episodes), William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I had the enormous privilege of talking to David Guy Levy and Steffen Schlachtenhaufen, the director and screenwriter (respectively) of the wicked little thrilla Would You Rather. Their film, which was reviewed in the pages of CraveOnline, proved to be a sweet, taut, twisted game, and worthy of a look. The flick was centered on the old “Would You Rather” slumber party game, but taken to delirious and gory extremes by the Vincent Price-like Jeffrey Combs who is entreating hostages to mutilate themselves… or others, all in exchange for an eventual cash prize.

Movies with a game-like structure (any and all video game movies notwithstanding) tend to be efficient and taut thrillers or comedies, as they have to, by necessity, stay within very easily understandable plot guidelines. One of the easiest and simplest and most enjoyable stories you can typically encounter in a film is to merely give your protagonist a goal, and then watch them use their wit and resources to fulfill that goal. If the goal is to race across several states in pursuit of a cash prize, the movie practically writes itself. There’s a reason I love the scavenger hunt subgenre of comedies so much (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, The Great Race, Rat Race, et al); the goals are simple, and there is a weird and childlike purity to the chase.

So a horror movie version of Would You Rather? Genius in a way. Would you rather stab someone in the leg, or beat someone nearly to death? Would you rather electroshock a stranger sitting next to you, or yourself? Schlachtenhaufen’s screenplay is spare and straightforward and beautifully sickening. On the podcast, the filmmakers talked about a sequel wherein new players would play a new game with similarly gory stakes. I suggested Duck, Duck, Die, but I sincerely hope they do not entertain that idea.

Since it’s the kind of thing we do with B-Movies Extended, William and I decided to brainstorm a bit, and come up with other films that are based on games. The ones on my list are of mixed quality, but are notable in some way or another.

Midnight Madness (dir. David Wechter, Michael Nankin)

Intended as a wild, sex-filled Animal House ripoff, this 1980 scavenger hunt movie was actually rather tame, and was actually released under the aegis of a PG rating. In my humble opinion, it is one of the best of the genre. Broad, wacky, fun, clever, Midnight Madness is a notable cult classic. The premise pits five color-coded teams of college kids (each representing a different class; nerds, jocks, sorority girls, good guys, bad guys) against one another in The Great All-Nighter, an all-night scavenger hunt game conceived of mad genius Leon (Alan Solomon), who seeks to see which campus group is the “best.” The game takes the players to notable L.A. spots like the Griffith Observatory, LAX, and, uh, the Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewery. The film featured a teenage Michael J. Fox in one of his first roles, as well as Stephen Furst, David Naughton, the indispensable Eddie Deezen, and cameos by Scott Bakula and Paul Reubens. I don’t want to give away any of the games. I will, however, say that Midnight Madness is nothing but enjoyable.

Witchboard (dir. Kevin Tenney, 1986)

I’m pretty sure that communication with the afterlife can’t typically be achieved with plastic, glow-in-the-dark pointers mass-produced by Parker Brothers, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t occasionally creeped out by the occasional Ouija Board. I think we all have childhood tales of playing with Ouija Boards, and that fateful night when we talked to a presence we could rightfully explain. That creepy night of playful occult dabbling is writ large in the pretty chilling 1986 horror film Witchboard, which deposits a Ouija Board (pronounced “Wee-Djah” in the film) in the laps of an occult scholar, his white, milquetoast friend, and his friend’s girlfriend (Tawny Kitaen) and has them unwittingly summon a dead satanic sorcerer. The horror beats are a little unpredictable, and the over flick is actually a bit chilling. This was one we talked of in hushed tones at age 12 or so, and there were rumors that it was so scary, it gave some people heart attacks. I did not have a heart attack, but I enjoyed the film a lot.

Truth Or Dare?: A Deadly Game (dir. Tim Ritter, 1986)

a.k.a. Truth Or Dare?: A Critical Madness

This zero-budget obscurity from the dusty underbelly of horror cinema is primarily notable for being one of the worst and most absurd films I have ever seen. Based very loosely on a “Truth or Dare” game, the film follows our antihero Mike (John Brace) as he discovers his wife cheating on him. He immediately takes to the road, where he meets a buxom blonder who wants to play Truth or Dare with him by a campfire. She dares him to pull out his eye and tongue, which he does. Flash-forward a few years, and Mike is in a mental institution, tongue inexplicably back, where he dares other inmates to eat hand grenades (which he somehow has a store of). The finale depicts Mike’s mad explosion-heavy killing spree in a public park. Badly written, strangely acted, haphazardly paced, and clearly made on a budget of about $50, Truth Or Dare?: A Deadly Game should definitely go on the list of any bad film aficionado.

The Saw Franchise (2004 – 2010)

I watched all of these films just a few months ago, and wrote about them in The Series Project. More famous for their copious amounts of perhaps-too-creative gore, the Saw movies are all, if you’ll recall, based on an elaborate game which, in many ways, resembles Would You Rather. A mysterious bloodthirsty engineer who calls himself Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) has, over the course of seven films, constructed dozens of elaborate deathtraps and killing machines that he traps his victims inside of, and forces them to do something horrible – usually mutilate themselves or others – in order to escape certain death. The function of the games is to, in the series’ rhetoric, allow the survivors to find a new lease on life by looking past their apathy and fighting to survive. The philosophy, however, is hardly the point, as we the audience tune in to see how wildly disgusting some of these games can get. One guy has to rip off his jaw in Saw III. Another had to saw his own arm – lengthwise – in Saw V. Or maybe that was IV. They do start to blend together after a while, and the chronology of the series is impossible to keep track of (two of the films take place at the same time). But the game, oh the game, was twisted and taut enough to be milked for an entire seven-film franchise. 

Inside Job (dir. Charles Ferguson, 2010)

At first glance, this Academy Award-winning documentary about the financial collapse of 2008 doesn’t really seem like a “game” film at all. Indeed, it plays more like an intriguing investigation story about corporate and governmental malfeasance than anything. But director Charles Ferguson often leaned on a certain notion that led to much of the economic mess that we are now so familiar with: in the higher-up wealth echelon world of trading futures and corporate CEOs who give themselves million dollar bonuses for any reason they want, the acquisition of wealth was presented as a kind of one-upmanship – a sport, really – that CEOs would play with one another. You made a billion dollars in the last quarter? I bet I can make even more. Never mind that they money they were accruing wasn’t going toward anything they needed; how many houses does one person need? It was a matter of machismo after a while. It became a haphazard game played with the money of the 99%. Never mind the death machines in Saw. This is a game that really hurt everyone. 

From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

All stories are based on conflict. Without conflict, you’re just describing the scenery. Going to the kitchen to get some milk is not a story. Going to a kitchen to get some milk, only to discover that a man-eating leopard is there, and challenging you to a game of Parcheesi where the winner gets to eat the loser… well, that’s just stupid, but at least it’s a story.

So with no shortage of games in the world, placing people, their overly competitive friends and annoying family members in direct conflict over the centuries, it only makes sense that stories would begin incorporating these pastimes into their stories. But merely playing a game isn’t worth spending millions of dollars to film, so the stakes are always raised to one ridiculous degree or another. “The Game Is Real” is a popular version of this storytelling trope. Your little jungle game? Yeah, it literally turns the whole world into a jungle. Whee. Jumanji, everybody. What a classic. (Yawn.) Other films take the basic plot of a game, some of which actually have one (particularly the “video” variety), and pad it out to feature length, with occasional success (Clue) and but mostly consistent failure (Battleship, just about anything ever adapted from a video game).

There are some notable exceptions here and there, but this is a gimmick, pure and simple. Take something familiar and benign and make it the source of drama. Sports movies are significantly different, since they’re about human beings in physical conflict with each other, fighting (literally or figuratively) over a real prize. “Games,” even the ones that have arguably been elevated to an art form like Poker or Chess, are relatively consequence-free, unless you’re gambling on them. So when a movie takes a game and trumps it up with greater conflict, you’re left with a stark contrast. The benign contrasting with the malevolent. Oh, isn’t it cute? Jeremy Irons is turning a terrorist plot (sort of) into a game of “Simon Says.” How subversive. Good movie though.

Hey, sometimes it works. Searching for Bobby Fischer, which I’ve harped on about plenty of times, takes the life of young chess prodigy and turns it into one of the best family dramas of the 1990s. WarGames, which I only just discussed last week, makes “Tic Tac Toe” into a potent metaphor for Cold War nuclear paranoia. And then there are these flicks, some of my other favorite movies that turned child’s play into serious drama… of a sort.

The Seventh Seal (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

A lot of movies based around games turn a pleasing pastime into a matter of life and death. The Seventh Seal, arguably the greatest movie on either me or Witney’s lists (I suspect he might agree with me), goes one step further, with a medieval knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) challenging the personification of Death itself (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess. Block hopes to prevent, or at least stall, his own death over the course of the game, the playing of which seems to relate relate directly to the peasants, fools and other characters surrounding them. Chess has always been about manipulating pawns in the midst of a war, sacrificing them for your own, selfish and inscrutable purposes. That’s pretty much what death does too, except he always wins in the end. A game is a competition between two opponents with at least equally plausible chances of winning, but the game of life and death is rigged… and worth playing anyway.

The Last Starfighter (dir. Nick Castle, 1984)

Before video games were more-or-less accepted as an art form (we’ll convince the skeptics sooner or later), they were just “games,” and the kids who spent all their time mastering them were widely considered to be wasting their damned time. Well, what if they weren’t? In The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), gets the high score on a popular video game called “Starfighter,” only to discover that the arcade cabinet as his tiny trailer park was a training device for an intergalactic army fighting an evil emperor. The game is real… and it’s also a game, feeding into the defiant fantasy that many kids had that mastering their favorite hobby would be a valuable life skill some day. The Last Starfighter also had lovable characters, memorable dialogue, exciting action sequences and a great story. It’s still the best video game movie, even though the actual video game never existed in the first place.

The Game (dir. David Fincher, 1997)

David Fincher’s third film was a creepy, Hitchcockian take on the old “scavenger hunt” model, exemplified by broad comedies like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Rat Race. Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, a joyless investment banker whose brother, played by Sean Penn, gives him a gift for his birthday: a free game, provided by Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). The exact nature of the game is unique to each user, based on an detailed psychological profile, and at first Nicholas finds his life energized by the possibility that any little detail could be a source of excitement. But then it all goes horribly wrong, his life falls apart and the actual nature of CRS is revealed to be… well, that would be telling. Frankly, I’ve never been convinced that the ending makes sense, catharsis or no catharsis, but either way The Game is an intense and clever subversion of an otherwise benevolent genre, and definitely worth watching.

Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle, 2008)

It’s not secret to anyone that I’m not the biggest fan of Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think it’s terrible, I just think that a really great concept got overpowered by an artificially happy ending and a heavy-handed, last minute stab at social relevance. But from a writing perspective, that concept is gold. Slumdog Millionaire stars Dev Patel as a boy from the lower echelon of the Indian caste system, who has wound up a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Despite a dearth of education, he starts getting every question right, and his underdog story is illustrated with flashbacks revealing exactly how, through the whims of fate, he wound up learning the answers over the course of his interesting, troubled life.

That’s a ridiculously clever framing device, and the Academy rewarded it with a Best Picture Oscar for its trouble. Again, though, the film’s attempts to elevate the actual “game” part of the movie to greater symbolic status (and make me believe Patel’s love story would have a happy ending, even though the lady in question is bound to be traumatized beyond belief) feel fake to me. Sure, Slumdog Millionaire needed to escalate in the last act. I just wish it didn’t come across as phony in the process. The climactic musical number, which reminds audiences that it’s all a movie and doesn’t really matter, doesn’t do that heavy-handed drama any favors either. A mixed bag, but an interesting one that aspiring screenwriters can learn a lot from.

William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold are the co-hosts of CraveOnline's B-Movies Podcast and the co-stars of The Trailer HItch. Follow them on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani and @WitneySeibold.