Life is full of decisions. Say you recovered from alcoholism and have been sober for 16 years now. Would you rather drink a glass of wine and a decanter of scotch or lose out on $50,000? Or: You’re a vegetarian for most of your life and can take home a wad of cash if you finish eating a steak. What would you rather do? And those are just the tips of the iceberg for decisions eight strangers will have to make in “Would You Rather,” an extremely nasty, effectively squirmy, and admirably thoughtful morality horror-thriller. Just think if the dinner parties in William Castle’s “House on Haunted Hill,” Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” and Milton Bradley’s “Clue” were married with the how-far-will-you-go torture games of “Saw.”
Unable to find a job that will pay the bills, Iris (Brittany Snow) selflessly puts her leukemia-suffering brother (Logan Miller) first. Then she meets Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs), a mysterious, aristocratic philanthropist with a charitable foundation who offers to pay for her brother’s bone-marrow transplant if she attends a dinner party he’s holding. The party will culminate in “a game of sorts,” and the winner will be taken care of financially. Enticed by the offer, Iris attends, instantly getting along with two gregarious out-of-towners, Lucas (Enver Gjokaj) and Cal (Eddie Steeples), while the rest of the hapless lot includes a recovered alcoholic (John Heard), a gambling addict (Robb Wells), an edgy war veteran (Charlie Hofheimer), a bad girl (Sasha Grey), and an older woman in a wheelchair (June Squibb). Before dinner is even finished, all eight guests realize their sadistic host will be forcing them to compete in the once-innocuous party game of “Would You Rather” with a diabolical life-or-death twist. Each of them must test their limits with harsh decision-making actsâ€”would they rather give pain or receive it? If they refuse or don’t decide between two equally horrible tasks in 15 seconds, they will be “eliminated” from the game. By the end of the night, will Iris’ mental and physical suffering be enough to save her brother’s life? And will she be the last one standing?
Working from a tight, clever script by Steffen Schlachtenhaufen, director David Guy Levy shows moderate discipline behind the camera as much as never shying away from the characters’ sick actions. Building with cringe-inducing, hold-your-breath suspense, he pulls away at just the right moment without turning the film into a mere exploitation exercise in debasement. Just the same, the film never takes the easy way out and surely doesn’t play nice to anyone, regardless of gender and age. With the story being set mostly in one dining room, the viewer will feel as confined to his and her seat as the characters, at least when the characters aren’t getting up to stab and whip the competition. As “Would You Rather” goes to prove, human nature is scarier than most masked, knife-wielding boogeymen. When these characters must make choices to get what they want, they will either save themselves or take one for the team to relieve others the pain.
Combs, who will always be known for his memorably nutty turn as Herbert West in 1985’s “Re-Animator,” is deliciously evil and darkly amusing here, sinking his teeth into the rotten Lambrick with a God complex. Iris is the central one to root for, Snow going through some genuine emotional highs to stick out the painful night until she gets what she needs. Ex-adult film star Grey also stands out as the selfish, acidic Amy, whose final fate links to her sad past. The rest of the “contestants” are pretty one-note in terms of who they are and what is at stake for each of them.
As long as one doesn’t overthink the internal logic of the premise, it’s a real corker. Two other quibbles: One character, who survived Lambrick’s game before, proves to be completely useless when making some of the dumbest decisions, and Lambrick’s remorseless son Julian (Robin Taylor) has an abrupt exit. The bold conclusion might be seen coming a mile away before it’s actually revealed, but it’s one of the bleakest, cruelest “O. Henry” twists that nonetheless delivers a devastating gut-punch and food for thought. If you’re that one in the audience that thinks he or she can’t be thrilled or shocked anymore, now with “Would You Rather,” try taking a razor blade to your eyeball.
95 min., not rated.