★★★ out of ★★★★★
Digital effects wizard Dean Yurke takes a seat in the director’s chair for his first feature, Stay Out, Stay Alive, a cautionary tale of greed unchecked as five young campers fall prey to the lure of a haunted gold mine. A beautiful looking if somewhat stiffly scripted debut effort.
Directed by Dean Yurke
Stay Out Stay Alive is a bit of an unusual entry into the world of first time directors turned indie horror makers. Deane Yurke is a veteran Industrial Light and Magic effects man, having been a digital artist and compositor for a roster of the biggest movies in Hollywood. Iron Man, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Star Trek... think of the most effects dependent movies out of Hollywood, and it is likely that Mr. Yurke was involved.
He wrote, produced, and directed Stay Out, Stay Alive, (formerly a movie titled Golden… a much better title now) which just had its world premiere at the Portland Horror Film Festival. With a pedigree like Yurke’s, it is not surprising that the film boasts a look of a big production studio. It also resembles a studio film, in that he has taken a decidedly PG-13 route with this outing, and he told the large Festival audience that it was his intent to have a movie that his kids could watch. A gateway indie horror picture is a bit of a rarity, as usually the indie films go down either the gory and gonzo route, or the heady think-piece route.
For his first time out writing a movie, Yurke found a great hook for his film. There are thousands of abandoned mines in the country, and nothing is romantic than the thought of finding an abandoned gold mine with something left to offer. Add in an actual legend of Chief Tenaya of the Ahwahneechee tribe who resided in the Yosemite Valley, whose son was killed in a mining dispute, and who himself was killed in a dispute with a neighboring tribe. This film embellishes this historical figure to establish that perhaps a curse had been placed upon the mine over which he lost his son. It’s always nice when you can root a good ghost story with some actual history.
Enter our protagonists, couples Reese (Brandon Wardle) and Bridget (Bree Mattson) , Amy (Christina July Kim) and Kyle (William Romano Pugh) , and Bridget’s sister Donna (Sage Mears) are going camping in the Yosemite Valley, and wouldn’t you know it, but they stumble into… you guessed it… an abandoned gold mine. They had been warned about the dangers of these mines by the local ranger (Barbara Crampton, having a bit of a professional renaissance) who gives them the “Stay Out, Stay Alive” speech (Which is also a standard warning for caves, mines, abandoned quarries, and other remote locations where someone might get trapped, whilst in the great outdoors.) So, do they listen to and do as the ranger suggests? Of course not!
Donna, having gone on a late night stroll as she felt “like a fifth wheel” and is the first to have accidentally encounter the mine, and ends up with her leg trapped under a rock. The others find her the following morning, and as they look a little bit deeper… EUREKA! Thar’s gold in them thar hills! The gold seems to come out of the walls easily. Maybe too easily. These campers are not miners, not skilled in dredging and panning, but there just happens to be some old mining equipment left behind… for some strange reason. (Hmmmm)
Lacking the wisdom of good sense, they manage to salvage quite a bit of the precious ore, and they decide to keep things mum. Avarice vetoes common sense, and gold fever makes them ignore the obvious indications of a curse in progress. An un-seasonal big storm is brewing, and the countdown clock has been set. As the madness and haunting set in, so does the storm.
It is odd that this subject hasn’t been visited in a while. In fact, for a plot that seems so archetypal, trying to find a match is tricky. You’ve got subterranean horror with The Descent, Graveyard Shift, and Abandoned Mine (Terrible movie!) and Gold Fever thrillers like Mother Lode, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Pale Rider, but nothing out there is quite like this. I would have thought there were a bunch, but nope. So points for originality in concept.
For a PG-13-ish project, the movie does a fine job not relying on jump scares. There are a couple, and they don’t really work, but overall, the movie depends on the building paranoia, and the various internal timing elements of the film to ratchet up the tension. And, in that way it does a pretty good job. The big driver of this film to develop tension is to rely on greed as the motivator, and it works well. All of this mounts as the third act reaches a climax, when Yurke’s skill as an effects man pays off with convincing drama.
Brandon Wardle does a convincing job of sliding into the villain’s role, as the one who gets the worst case of gold fever. The biggest difficulty for this movie is that it doesn’t build up a really likable protagonist. Bonding with the characters is tricky because they either come off as greedy and paranoid or whiny and timid. Nobody else, however, is really propped up to be the character you really want to root for. So, it stumbles pretty badly relative to Eric’s Rule #1: Care about the protagonists. There is nobody taking the role of the cautionary aware protagonist. They all succumb to the avarice, though admittedly some more than others, and for a movie with a plot this simple, the dynamics of that character tension is noticeably missing.
The movie is exceptionally well shot, though. It ended up winning the Portland Horror Film Festival’s best cinematography prize, and it deserved it. Actually well used lens flare and camera positioning speaks to the amount of care that each one of the frames was taken, and it feels like the whole movie was storyboarded. (Which given the ILM pedigree would not surprise me if it was.)
Yurke shows real promise as a cinematographer, and I think he’ll make a fine director. The story is solid, and the foundation curse is pretty good as well, but as a writer of dialogue, he has a way to go. The plot is fairly predictable, and the film is at its weakest at the emotional high points of the film. Yurke is not a spring chicken in the profession, but it is the first time that he both wrote and directed a feature film. Having completed that effort, I hope that he gets himself associated with a great screenwriter, as this man knows how to shoot a film, and his promise that he showed in this film could be fulfilled.
Stay Out Stay Alive is not yet rated, but is strongly targeting a PG-13 rating. They even curbed the language to make it compliant. I think this would be a solid gateway film for those just getting into genre, but concerned about gore. There is a good bit of tension, and some fairly bloodless, but effective scares. This movie is going to be passing through the festival circuit for a while, I’m sure, so it probably won’t be available for streaming until the fall, at least.
For now, you can appreciate the Trailer: