Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The First Rule of Suicide Club is...: "The Game of Death" (2000)



It's a shame this film, based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, didn't do better than it did.

Victorian Henry Joyce (David Morrissey) is despondent. His wife died from consumption six months before, and he has closed himself up in his home to mourn. His friend Captain May (Neil Stuke) coaxes him out to a pub, and they meet a drunk Shaw (Paul Bettany). Shaw is broke and ruined after squandering his inheritance, and Henry feels a kinship with him. Shaw takes the duo to a private home, where he assures Henry he will find relief from his current state.

At the home, May and Henry sign oaths and gain entrance to The Suicide Club, run by Bourne (Jonathan Pryce). People who want to die, but can't do themselves in, draw cards. The cards decide who gets the honor of dying, and who will be the one to murder the person. When a person dies, their estates go to Bourne, who finds plenty of people to keep the club going. During the first meeting, May flees the home (this was all a lark anyway) and is killed by Bourne's men. Henry keeps attending meetings, but soon gets involved with the club's only female, Sarah (Catherine Siggins), who is mourning her own lost love. Henry and Sarah grow closer, and Bourne's tidy club and its morbid game, as well as Bourne's livelihood, are threatened.

The film was produced by Roger Corman, but this is not exploitation or a black comedy, although a dark comic take on the material might have been interesting. Because it is based on a short story, the film only runs 91 minutes, and often has a padded feeling to it. Screenwriter Lev L. Spiro has crafted a very dreary plot from Stevenson's story, and allows one-too-many leaps in logic (Henry and May go along with Shaw way too quickly). Director Samuels can film a parlor sequence with the best of them, turning conversations into wonderful moments. Her action sequences, on the other hand- the pursuit of May is an absolute mess, simply bad film making.

The biggest strength found here is the cinematography courtesy of Chris Manley. It is nothing short of stunning, with rich colors and beautiful shadowing. His shots remind us that Victorian England wasn't all black and gray, but without giving in to an inappropriate psychedelic color palette. Kudos to the casting team, as well, recognizing Morrissey and Bettany in early roles. The entire cast is pretty fantastic, Siggins' character's pain comes off very well, and it was nice not to have her change overnight thanks to a roll in the hay with Henry. The musical score sounded canned, and did nothing for the proceedings.

This was released in a film festival or two, then found its way to video. It is also known under three or four different titles, and I don't know who is to blame, but despite its positives the film seems to have been unceremoniously dumped. Even the DVD cover is a mess of photoshop, and features a character who is in the film for about a minute. It's not great, but "The Game of Death" should have been given a fighting chance based on its cinematography and casting. Oh, well, that's the luck of the draw. (* * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: The Game of Death