As with seemingly all IP-based film franchises, movies based on video games are currently a hot property in Hollywood. Films like “Uncharted,” “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” and the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movies easily rake in the dollars and typically earn respectable critical notices. But that wasn’t always the case. Until very recently, “based on the video game” was a damning credit to have. It was a given that such movies would earn middling box office returns and receive disastrous reviews. In the world of video games, horror titles are some of the most successful and well-regarded types of games, and one would think that they’d lend themselves well to the big screen, given that many of them borrow aspects of horror movies. From obvious elements like creature design (countless video games owe their success to George Romero’s creations) to more technical features such as music and players’ perspectives, horror video games are some of the most cinematic on the market. So why are so many of their film adaptations considered cataclysmically awful? And is that bad reputation earned? In honor of the release of the film adaptation of “Five Nights at Freddy’s” and the Halloween season, let’s take a look at the history of horror video game adaptations.
One man may be partly responsible for the horrendous reputation that plagued not only horror video game films but all video game adaptations in general. The infamous director Uwe Boll has shepherded many video games to the silver screen with disastrous results. In the mid-2000s, he released three horrendously received horror films, all of which currently have single-digit Rotten Tomatoes scores: “House of the Dead,” “Alone in the Dark,” and “BloodRayne.”
“House of the Dead” is a brainless film about brain-eaters. Based on the arcade shooter franchise, it concerns a group of vapid young adults who find themselves unwittingly facing off against hordes of ravenous zombies on what was a supposed to be a party vacation; appropriately for the time period, the undead get in the way of the rave they planned to attend. Boll’s grand directorial flourish is to insert shots of the video game during key action moments, which is both annoying and mystifying. Perhaps he intended to distract from the film’s lackluster visuals by using 90s video game graphics as a point of comparison.
“Alone in the Dark” is the worst of Boll’s three horror video game films – of the 121 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, only 1% are positive. And watching the film, it’s easy to see why it’s so despised. First of all, it bears little resemblance to the games from which it takes its name. The video games require players to investigate classic spooky locations, like a haunted house or a pirate ship. The film adaptation takes its cues from much more contemporary sources. It’s clearly influenced by “Blade” and other slick horror-action thrillers of the era. But nearly everything about it reeks of incompetency. It’s poorly shot, designed, acted, written, and judging by the ridiculous poster, even the marketing was terrible. Looking at its box office returns, the title describes how many solitary audience members likely felt at their empty screenings.
The best of these three films is “BloodRayne,” although describing this horrendous film in that positive of a manner is a bit like naming the most desirable form of cancer. Considering Boll’s filmography up to that point, the cast of “BloodRayne” is strangely impressive. It features Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Billy Zane (credited as a “Special Appearance”), Udo Kier, Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley, and, of course, a bewigged Meat Loaf. Obviously, none of them are turning in career-best work, with Rodriguez noticeably struggling with her accent work and Madsen sleepwalking through every scene. But the performer most betrayed by the film is lead actress Kristanna Loken as the semi-titular Rayne – the product of one human and one vampire parent, known as a “dhampir.” None of the film’s action impresses, but Loken’s limp fight choreography is filmed in such an unflattering way that one might think she and Boll were clashing behind the scenes, and this was his revenge. Boll’s unholy trinity of unfathomably bad horror video game adaptations certainly gave the microgenre a lousy name that it has yet to shake entirely.Mr. Boll wasn’t the only one assembling poorly regarded horror video game movies in the mid-2000s. “Doom” made its way to theaters in 2005, brought to life by director Andrzej Bartkowiak. It’s an unremarkable movie about soldiers in the far-off year of 2026 fighting mutants on Mars – basically, a dumbed down “Aliens.” Bartkowiak’s vision doesn’t provide much worth mentioning, except for one sequence towards the end, which adopts the game’s first-person perspective for an extended scene of violence at the hands of the main character. Otherwise, it’s only notable for two performances that are incongruous with what was to come from the actors’ filmographies. Rosamund Pike plays a determined scientist, and she manages to inject the character with some of her trademark assuredness, even when delivering some truly goofy dialogue about mutations and space monsters. And Dwayne Johnson (still being credited as “The Rock”) gets to play an antagonist – something he’d never do in the present day, where every one of his characters needs to be squeaky clean, admirable, and charming.
Despite this handful of rightfully forgotten duds, one horror video game movie released in the 2000s stands up as not only a good scary movie but very likely the greatest film adaptation of a video game of all time. “Silent Hill” is directed by Christophe Gans, who was a fan of the games and worked hard to prove himself as the best person for the job to Konami, the company behind the video games. His insistence paid off, and his appreciation of the games is proven by his faithful work on the film. The atmosphere, creature designs, and music are plucked straight from the games and given an appropriate cinematic touch. And most importantly, the film is scary. Gans blankets the entire movie with an unrelenting bleak tone, completely selling the idea of a desolate, hopeless world that’s trapped the main character. The production design is flawless, conjuring up a world of dread that genuinely feels like a vision of hell. As a horror film, “Silent Hill” is a worthy addition to the canon. That being said, it did give way to a dreadful sequel called “Silent Hill: Revelation,” which works overtime to try and capture the same dark magic of the first film. But the less said about it, the better.
Of course, you can’t talk about horror video game movies without bringing up the “Resident Evil” series. The preeminent horror game series was an inevitable candidate for a film version, and the cinematic franchise it inspired proved to be one of the most successful examples of video game adaptations. The first film is a relatively small-scale thriller about a team trying to break into, and then out of, a high-tech computerized facility overrun by zombies and other creatures from the video games. Although the film briefly features a mansion – clearly a reference to the setting of the first game – the movie is quite a departure from the source material. Outside of some familiar creatures and references (the Umbrella Corporation, the T-virus, etc.), it’s more of a loose adaptation than a faithful cinematic translation. But still, it primarily works, thanks to some clever action direction from Paul W. S. Anderson.
The first “Resident Evil” was successful enough to spawn a sequel, “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” which more closely follows aspects of the game series. Named characters and situations from the second and third video games are prominently featured. But most importantly, the film centers around the same main character as the previous film – Alice, played by Milla Jovovich. She would go on to be the key element of the film series, which gets increasingly zanier and further afield of the actual games as it goes on. The third film, “Resident Evil: Extinction,” is where the series really starts to define Alice’s superhuman abilities that were granted to her by genetic mutations. And subsequently, the action is further heightened. Some fight scenes even resemble those found in wuxia films with their utilization of wirework.
Paul W. S. Anderson returns for the film’s fourth installment, “Resident Evil: Afterlife,” and carries the series for the following two films – “Resident Evil: Retribution” and “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” Anderson proves to be the secret to the franchise’s success, as “Afterlife” and “Retribution” are easily the most enjoyable films in the series. The action is inventive and raucously entertaining, and longtime fans of the series are rewarded for their loyalty by seeing favorite characters from both the films and games pop up for appearances (or, in the case of some, resurrections). The jump in quality of the fourth and fifth films definitely makes it worth working through the still enjoyable but less shamelessly entertaining films that come before.Unfortunately, “The Final Chapter” is arguably the worst of the six films, closing out the series with a shockingly standard entry. The action is superficial and perfunctory. Rather than simply expanding on the logical thrust of the films’ storyline thus far, this movie is content to merely serve as an updated version of the first film, featuring the characters traversing the exact location as that initial film. Still, Jovovich makes for a compelling lead, helping guide her character to a satisfying conclusion.
In 2021, the series was rebooted with “Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City.” This film takes the semi-logical approach of being much more faithful to the actual games than any of the other films, following a storyline resembling the first two video games, populated by characters familiar to players. However, the action is uninspired, the writing is amateurish (even by the standards of the admittedly ridiculous series that came before it), and the constant references to the game bog the pacing down rather than serving as fun Easter eggs. Hopefully, the series isn’t expanded upon, and fans can merely revisit the enjoyable Jovovich-Alice run.
2021 also saw the release of “Werewolves Within,” based on a VR game of the same name. The game is a socially based deduction game wherein players must work out who amongst them is the werewolf in disguise that’s been terrorizing a medieval village. The film takes an entirely different approach – it’s a horror-comedy set in modern-day Vermont, featuring a bunch of wacky townsfolk who become convinced that a werewolf must be behind a string of brutal murders. Most notably, it’s currently the best-reviewed video game film in history on both Rotten Tomatoes (where it sits at 86% fresh) and Metacritic (it has a score of 66/100). Director Josh Ruben got the job after his directorial debut, the equally funny and frightening “Scare Me,” put him on the radar of the game’s creators. His comedic sensibilities work well with Mishna Wolff’s hilarious screenplay, and the talented ensemble helps bring further specificity to the script’s already well-defined characters. The movie peters out a bit towards the end, but it’s a fun ride all the same.
So, are horror video game adaptations worthy of their lackluster reputation? Clearly, the general quality of the microgenre is all over the place. As with all films, a successful video game adaptation requires a caring, creative vision behind the camera and actors willing to buy into the often silly things asked of them. Video game fans are a tough crowd to please, but some of the cinematic versions of their favorite games are sure to live up to their lofty expectations.
What re some of your favorite horror movie video game adaptation? Have you seen “Five Nights at Freddy’s” yet? If so, what did you think? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.