By JENN ADAMS
WICKED GAMES opens on an unusual note. A gravely wounded police officer staggers through a countryside estate, passing masked bodies and desperately drinking water from the sink. He manages to ride a motorcycle to his precinct and identify a girl in a video who points a gun directly at the camera and pulls the trigger. Next, the footage immediately rewinds, showing the entire movie in rapid reverse. The reel speeds backwards through moments of carnage, relaxation, and intimacy before stopping with a couple about to embark upon a romantic getaway; one half of which is the girl from the video. WICKED GAMES doesn’t exactly tread any new ground, but writer and director Teddy Grennan tells the story of a luxurious resort home invaded by masked killers in such an innovative way that the simple premise feels fresh and new.
Kiel (Markus Silbiger) and Harley (Christine Spang) are a newly dating couple, set to visit his family’s remote estate home. Both have tragic pasts, Kiel having lost his parents to suicide and Harley, a survivor of mysterious trauma she’s reluctant to talk about. The film’s first act is spent getting to know the young couple on the carefree road trip. Once they arrive at Kiel’s massive family estate, the two begin to connect on a deeper level and the lingering effects of their past traumas begin to show. A shocking midnight tragedy plunges their romantic getaway into a bitter fight for survival, power, and revenge.
Though it begins as a tender story of young lovers, WICKED GAMES takes a shocking turn into brutality. A cruel cross between The Purge, The Strangers, and Funny Games, the invaders seem to have no motive other than the thrill of taking lives. Wearing GoPros to film the carnage, their plans for the couple are vile and hauntingly simple. The masks and anonymous quality of the attackers is unsettling, and once we do finally get to know the killers, they prove to be perversely endearing. A third act conversation between these predator and their prey adds a new facet to each character’s motivations that leaves us dying for a sequel.
But the film’s biggest strength is the ingenuity of its cinematography. Occasionally jarring, the camera moves rapidly around characters with stretches of action filmed on handheld cameras and GoPros. In lesser hands, this would be nausea inducing and gimmicky, but Grennan’s restraint with these shots adds a disjointed feel akin to social media posts and found footage. Given the sensational nature of the killer’s motivations, this also enhances themes of violence as entertainment and the cold detachment provided by a screen and a camera. While lending the simple story a fresh nuance, the filming style also effectively keeps us in the heads of those being pursued by the masked killers, unable to ever quite find our footing.
Once the carnage begins, Grennan gleefully leans into brutal violence, but carefully sidesteps crude gore. The film is lean and mean with moments of terror interweaving with dark comedy and catharsis. It’s a fast paced ride and the nihilistic story provides no safe haven for characters we come to love. All of this works because you spend so much time getting to know our two leads and you genuinely care for their budding relationship while fearing on the ominous seeds that foreshadow the inevitable tragedy.
Harley is a phenomenal final girl, showing her strength early in the film, and Kiel is sympathetic and endearing – sweeping the troubled and distant Harley off her feet with his relatable charm. But it’s a third act addition to the cast that steals the show, elevating what could have been a tired and predictable conclusion with wicked charisma.
On paper, WICKED GAMES reads like a played out home invasion story with a questionable gimmick. But captivating performances, commitment to the style, and a restrained directorial hand combine to lift the film above the sum of its parts. Grennan hooks us in with his unique framing and leaves us on a well-earned cliff hanger. Here’s hoping we get another installment of this wicked story.
WICKED GAMES screened as part of Salem Horror Fest 2021.