This is another one of those titles that really should have been better than it was. On paper, the concept is actually kind of awesome. The sad thing, however, is the execution of it all. It could have been a very visceral horror movie with some pretty original ideas, but instead, it really does come off as some kind of made-for-TV horror, despite some of the more gory scenes. But, I'll cut it at least a bit of slack, as it's director Toby Meakins' film debut as well as a Netflix original.
We meet a family of three; Laura (Kate Fleetwood) her son, Gabe (Pete MacHale), and a reclusive father named Hal (Eddie Marsan), who obsesses over retro video games in his... mancave? Hal receives an interaction fiction game entitled "CURS>R", and gives it a try. It ends up being a text-based adventure game with a catch - decisions in the game affect the world around you. We learn how sinister this software is when, while playing it, Hal accidentally brings harm to his family with a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" question. Then we never see any of these people again until near the end.
The film then introduces us to a college student named Kayla (Iola Evans), who's trying to improve her skills at school with coding. Her friend, Isaac (Asa Butterfield), helps her with this, as she provides him with various technology in return. Her home life is awful, with her drug-addicted mother, Thea (Angela Griffin), and their rent collector, Lance (Ryan Gage), who may as well be an evil pimp. We learn here that Kayla is the tough daughter who faces all of their problems head-on, takes care of her mother, and gives Lance the right amount of attitude to show she doesn't fear him.
One day, Kayla finds the 'CURS>R' game in Isaac's apartment while visiting, and discovers a hotline number with the game, offering a prize of $125,000. Upon calling the number, Kayla gets the voice of the one and only Robert Englund telling them to play the game, which will give them a code, which will get them the money. Kayla, tempted by the offer, decides to play, promising to split the prize money with Isaac. However, it pretty much becomes a horrific version of 90s 'Jumanji', where the game's various "yes/no" options get deadly in real life.
My biggest problem with this is how unrealistic it is. I'm not talking about the game's supernatural powers either. I think the idea of a cash prize still existing from a retro text-based game is kind of ridiculous. I know there were games out there that did involve the concept of grand prizes - the most famous probably being the unfinished 'Swordquest' games for Atari. Check that link out, it's actually pretty interesting stuff! Anyway, besides that elephant in the room, there was something about Kayla that truly bugged me, and I can't really put my finger on it. It's almost as though her "girl power" felt forced somehow. Nothing against the actress, but some kind of combination of writing and direction with her felt... off.
Pushing my criticisms aside, however, there are still a few things one can appreciate about this. In some ways, aside from hearing Robert Englund's voice, there was a bit of a 'Nightmare on Elm Street', dream-like quality to this, and I have to admit that a lot of it made me squirm. On top of that, I actually did kind of like the climactic sequence, where she faces a "final boss". As I mentioned before, I think they have the right idea for something somewhat original here. But the execution left a little to be desired. Elsewhere, it's fairly heavily criticized, but between a new director and it being a Netflix original, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. It's certainly no type of must-see, though.