Creating an intriguing, eerily effective film in in the artisanal horror subgenre, in which directors place a high value on scaring the audience with the simplest possible effect, such as an unexpected camera movement or a barely glimpsed shadow, has increasingly scared audiences psychologically in recent years. With the critical and box office success of such craft-conscious, low-budget horror films as ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘House of the Devil,’ the genre is taking a new approach to connecting with audiences. Filmmaker David Guy Levy, whose second directorial effect, ‘Would You Rather,’ which is being released by the New York-based distribution company IFC Midnight, is the latest movie in the subgenre that proves that showing less can be more emotionally frightening.
‘Would You Rather’ follows Iris (Brittany Snow) as she struggles to make ends meet, while caring for her terminally ill younger brother, Raleigh (Logan Miller), after their parents’ deaths. Shepard Lambrick (Jeffrey Combs), a seemingly philanthropic aristocrat, expresses an interest in helping them. When he invites Iris to an exclusive dinner party, she accepts. Also attending the dinner party are seven more desperate individuals. They soon find themselves trapped in Lambrick's mansion and forced to play a sadistic game of Would You Rather, where the winner will be awarded untold amounts of money. As the game progresses, the dilemmas Iris and the other players face grow increasingly deadly.
While the majority of the horror-thriller is set within Lambrick’s home, particularly his dining room, where the dinner and game are primarily held throughout the night, Levy cleverly used the confining set to his advantage to emphasize the participants’ ever-growing feeling of claustrophobia. With the help of production designer Rene Sekula, the director created a house that initially appears inviting, much like Lambrick is at the beginning of the film, that subtly but increasingly grew more physically and psychotically disturbing as the evening continues. Levy aptly used the intimating location, and skillfully used the props, to create increasing terror and dread in Iris and the other guests. The well-used sets and props, from the transparent sliding doors that originally appear antique and welcoming but begin to create a harrowing feeling as they begin to lock the guests in, to the daunting basement filled with numerous entryways for Lambrick’s staff to suspensefully track Iris as she daringly tries to escape later in the night, all expertly showcase the filmmaker’s effective use of the artisanal horror subgenre plot points.
While Levy ambitiously filmed ‘Would You Rather’ with a limited budget and had a short shooting schedule, the director skillfully worked with cinematographer Steven Capitano Calitri to capture all angles of the actors’ actions and reactions. Knowing that he wouldn’t have time to reshoot scenes later in the filming schedule if he needed more coverage, Levy effectively put two cameras on opposite sides of each room he filmed in to get wide and close-up shots of Snow and her co-stars. As a result, the director featured numerous, emotionally gripping shots of the actors as they portrayed their shock and horror to Lambrick’s ever increasing desire to see how far they could push themselves, and how quickly they would turn on each other.
Continuing with the artisanal horror subgenre, Levy also maintained the indignity of the emotional states of Iris and the other dinner guests by not fully showing the attacks they unleashed on each other. By not fully showing the blood and gore commonly associated with the horror genre, Levy was instead able to focus on the emotional motivations of the characters.
Snow played Iris as being determined to make money in any way possible to care for her brother, as emphasized in a conversation she had with Raleigh before going to the party; he asked her if she wanted to live her own life, and she emotionally answers this is the life she wants. When she arrives at Lambrick’s house, she’s initially hesitant to go against her ideals or harm the other guests. But as the night continues and Iris sees how much money he’s willing to pay the winner of the game, her morals begin to crumble as she finally sees a plausible way to help Raleigh.
Combs, who has made a name for himself in the horror genre, including in the acclaimed 1980s ‘Re-Animator’ series, also memorably portrayed Lambrick. The actor, who initially appeared welcoming and acted as though he genuinely wanted to help Iris and Raleigh, provided subtle hints from the beginning of ‘Would You Rather’ to show he had ulterior motives. When Lambrick first meets Iris in Dr. Barden’s (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) office at the local clinic where her brother is being treated, Combs portrayed the philanthropist as being nonchalant about whether or not she joined the game. However, as soon as Iris leaves the clinic, Combs quickly and aggressively changes Lambrick’s attitude towards Dr. Barden; he insists that she has to participate, as she would be perfect for the game. Combs also terrifyingly increases Lambrick’s sadistic nature throughout the dinner, showing that while he publically portrays himself as a philanthropist, he actually revels in inflicting physical and emotional pain on other people.
While ‘Would You Rather’ features a seemingly simplistic plotline, chronicling how far people would inflict pain on strangers for their own advantage, Levy ambitiously took a more meaningful, philosophical look into the motivations of people who are suffering from extreme emotional distress. With his first venture making a thriller, the director smartly utilized characteristics from the artisanal horror subgenre to showcase the psychological and physical trauma Iris and the other dinner guests experienced. Effectively using the confining sets of Lambrick’s mansion and multiple cameras to capture the ever-changing physical reactions of the characters, combined with Snow and Combs’ chilling performances, ‘Would You Rather’ proves that horror films don’t need larger budgets and elaborate stunts to terrify audiences.