Warning: This review contains significant spoilers for the plot of Stay Out Stay Alive.
What would you do if you fell down a mine shaft and struck gold? In filmmaker Dean Yurke’s directorial debut Stay Out Stay Alive, questions like this are asked and the results are tense and at times horrifying. This is a film about greed and friends turning against each other. On top of that we get a harrowing story of just how amoral people can become when riches and wealth are on the line, not to mention how blatant disregard of folklore and ancient curses never ends well.
We start off with what we assume will be a weekend camping retreat that will obviously turn out badly. Characters Donna, Bridget, Reese, Amy and Kyle are all heading out to a national park for a fun vacation away from their worries. We are quickly introduced to Barbara Crampton’s Ranger Susanna and this is where the sense that something’s off sets in. The land is a sacred place ravaged by the Gold Rush and all mine tours are closed for the season. Here we begin to see what’s in store for these folks.
Our main cast consists of two couples and a fifth wheel. Donna, the odd one out, decides to venture off for a walk in the dark that goes south fast. After seeing something frightening in the shadows of the forest, she runs and falls down a ravine into an open shaft and gets trapped. In the morning her friends find her stuck in a literal goldmine. This is where we stay for most of the rest of the film.
Dean Yurke plays with this claustrophobic and dangerous setting to its fullest effect. The premise for his idea here stems from the yearly deaths that occur in mine shafts across the west. When his characters discover the gold, they become victims of an old Native American curse that seals their fate. It’s a great premise that he delivers on with a film that grips the audience one moment after the next.
The cast is excellent as well with performances that fully delve into the themes of greed, abuse, concern and fear that the story explores. Brandon Wardle as Reese is the one who becomes the most consumed of them all and his descent into cruel murderousness had the premiere audience gripped. Christina July Kim as Amy is excellent as the voice of reason who goes ignored, and Brie Mattson’s Bridget is great as the character who realizes the danger way too late and still tries to be the savior.
Barbara Crampton’s role in the film as Susanna is critical to establishing what eventually happens in the third act turn. Her moment early on with Sage Mears’ Donna indicates to us that even those characters don’t know each other, Ranger Susanna know that something bad is going to happen. When a heavy rainstorm rolls in over the park, she heads out to find the campers who’ve now set up a digging site far off from where they were authorized to be. This leads to a confrontation that sets the final act of the film in motion and the spirits of the forest go full force.
Stay Out Stay Alive is a tense ride with a lot of great moments of American folklore horror. The premise lends itself to a lot of exposition regarding curses and inhuman events that happened during the Gold Rush that benefit the sense of unease in the film. We see well-rendered creatures in the shadows and the darkened woods that work perfectly for any haunted horror story. The effects in the film are well done and the cinematography and framing of the shots in this films are masterfully done at times.
As for the crowd at the Portland Horror Film Festival premiere, people loved it. Dean Yurke, Brie Mattson and Brandon Wardle took the stage after the film and the crowd was all cheers. The Q&A dug into some discussion of independent horror and using effective visual effects, to making the film intentionally accessible for a PG-13 audience while also keeping the tone intense. This was a great premiere for the film and we’re already looking forward to seeing it get a wide release.