The more horror I read and watch, the more I realize that certain stories are repeatedly told over the decades. Different generations will create different variations, but the story will fundamentally be the same. This is by no means a bad thing: we create our world by telling stories, and some stories are just so crucial to the human condition, so much about who we are, that they need—they demand—to be re-told.
One extremely important story in the horror tradition is the story of the dangerous game. It originated (in modern form, anyway) in the 1924 short story by Richard Connell called (not surprisingly) “The Most Dangerous Game.” It’s been made into several films over the decades (e.g., RKO’s faithful 1932 adaptation, The Most Dangerous Game, starring Joel McCrea, 1961’s Bloodlust!, 1994’s Surviving the Game, with Rutger Hauer and Ice-T, and 2004’s The Eliminator). The most recent incarnation of the dangerous game story, I would argue, is Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Nerve (2016).
Connell’s original story is a simple one. A hunter named Sanger Rainsford falls off a yacht and ends up swimming to an island owned by another hunter, General Zaroff. Zaroff tells Rainsford about his passion for hunting, which has led him to hunt, as he says, “every kind of game in every land.” And now, Zaroff is bored. No animal he has hunted has ever proved challenging enough. So Zaroff has, he tells Rainsford, invented “a new animal to hunt.” As the story continues, Rainsford finds out exactly what “new” animal Zaroff now pursues, all in his effort to find new “sensations,” new “thrills.” (I couldn’t help but think of Eli Roth’s Hostel films here.) Obviously, in the pursuit of new “sensations,” we have one reason this particular story—the “dangerous game” story—has seen so many iterations. Humans are thrill-seekers. Indeed, the horror film itself is predicated on the human search for the next adrenaline rush.
At one point, late in “The Most Dangerous Game,” Rainsford is dashing through the jungle, and he tells himself, “Nerve, nerve, nerve!” as he fortifies himself for his part in Zaroff’s dangerous game.
I wondered if this was a perhaps not coincidental link to Schulman and Joost’s Nerve—a film that is also about a dangerous game and also about thrill-seeking. Nerve stars Emma Roberts as Vee, a teenager from Staten Island who gets tired of playing life safe and decides to play Nerve, a game billed as like Truth or Dare minus the Truth. In a rather obvious metaphor for life, Nerve asks its users to decide if they are Players or Watchers. Feeling like she’s spent her whole life watching, Vee decides to play. She is sent on a series of increasingly risky but benign dares, during the course of which she meets fellow player Ian (Dave Franco). Before long, the games take a more damaging turn, with much more (like Vee’s friendships) at stake.
Nerve is based on the novel of the same name by Jeanne Ryan and, in a relatively rare occurrence, the screenplay (by Jessica Scharzer) is actually much better than the novel. Among other things, in the novel, the dares themselves are what become more sinister. In the film, though, it’s not the dares but the Watchers who move the story into “dangerous game” terrain. It’s also the Watchers who give Nerve, which is essentially a thriller, its constituent “horror.” If horror films by definition must have monsters, then the monsters of Nerve are unambiguously the Watchers, those who, at first, offer the Players only their desired celebrity but who later urge the Players on to increasingly risky actions.
It’s with the Watchers that Nerve connects again with Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” beyond the idea of the game, beyond thrill-seeking. Connell’s story crystallizes one of the most enduring of human dynamics, that of predator and prey: “The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees,” Rainsford declares. In Nerve, there are also two classes of people: Players and Watchers—but while these groups seem very different from “hunters and the huntees,” by the end of the film, the Watchers have become the hunters—and the Players are their prey.
As they become the hunters, the Watchers are visually transformed. At first, they are harmless and adoring fans, smart phones always at the ready to record the Players’ exploits and precipitate them to fame. By the end, they wear masks and their phones are not just recording but coercing. Their motives are less adulatory and more threatening, even sadistic. Indeed, Nerve ends up evoking The Purge films, as the Watchers look exactly like the anarchic and violent purgers, ready to do anything under the mask of anonymity. Nerve thus serves as commentary, I think, on how observers rarely remain passive. In their watching, in their recording, they start to shape the behavior of those they record, pushing expectations ever further beyond the boundaries of what’s “normal” and safe, even legal and ethical.
If you’ve read Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” you’ll recognize that Nerve ends in a similar way. In the film, at least, the ending was one of the least satisfying moments: it felt contrived, unrealistically utopian.
Nonetheless, I definitely recommend Nerve—our current decade’s incarnation of the most dangerous game story (though we can hope for more). There were problems in continuity in the screenplay, but the story is nonetheless provocative and the acting is stellar (in particular by Roberts, Franco, and Emily Meade as Vee’s friend Sydney). The direction and cinematography are stunning, creating a world that hovers—like the plot itself—between real and surreally dystopian.