Let’s get it out of the way early: Gatlopp is a terrible title for a horror movie. It’s probably meant to be an intriguing tease that makes viewers wonder whether “GATLOPP” (sometimes styled in all-caps) is an acronym, a specific reference, or the onomatopoeia for some particularly horrific, messy act of violence. (“Shuddering, Lance turned away rather than watch as the gelatinous alien monster ingested the other half of his fallen comrade with a wet, echoing gat-lopp.”) Instead, it sounds silly and thudding at the same time, like a neologism someone made up while drunk and keeps trying to force on soberer friends.
But while the movie is just about as ridiculous as its title (in full, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game), it lands a lot better. A micro-budgeted adult take on the likes of the magical board-game stories Jumanji and Zathura, Gatlopp puts its central group of angsty young professionals through the wringer, effectively turning Truth or Dare into a high-stakes game of fessing up to deep secrets and potentially friendship-ending lies. It’s appropriately goofy given the premise and the structure, but a brisk pace and a committed cast turns it into a diverting indie horror-movie spin on a familiar gimmick.
The action is built around a drinking game that amiable bar promoter Cliff (Jon Bass) finds in a used credenza and forces on his reluctant friends. High-profile TV producer Samantha (Emmy Raver-Lampman) and struggling wannabe actor Troy (Sarunas J. Jackson) have both reached points in their lives where they’re ready to move on from the party-hardy days when they were all devoted besties. But Cliff wrangles them into a get-together to support their old friend Paul (Jim Mahoney, also the screenwriter and an executive producer), who’s mid-divorce and turning into a maudlin mess after learning that his soon-to-be ex has moved in with a rich, successful, reportedly well-endowed rival.
The early scenes make it clear enough that all four of these characters are well-known types: Paul is a weary Eeyore who devoted his life to his relationship and can’t believe it’s all fallen apart. Troy is strained under the weight of his failure to launch as an actor, but is using an easygoing persona and ready smile to mask his disappointment and make all his setbacks seem temporary. Samantha, the group’s biggest success, has made her work into her life and personality, to the point where she has strictly limited time for her old friends.
And Cliff, the shaggy-haired stoner who’s clearly pleased to have crafted a life where he can still hit the booze like he’s in college, is the keeper of their friendships, the guy with a wall of party Polaroids to remind them all of the times they got wasted together, got weird haircuts, or made bad decisions. When the others want to settle for sharing a beer, then giving Paul a hug and a “Sorry, man” on their way out the door, Cliff is the one who guilts them into devoting an evening to reliving their shared party days over the drinking game he just found. “Gatlopp,” he says, is Swedish for “the gauntlet.” But even as he’s talking up the game to his reluctant buds, he has no inkling about the gauntlet he’s about to put them all through.
Running at an efficient, high-energy 80 minutes, Gatlopp doesn’t have a lot of time to waste on the characters’ disbelief when their drinking game starts demanding personal information from them, moving pieces around on the board by itself, and imposing supernatural penalties when they dodge questions. By the time they find out that if they don’t complete the game, they’ll have to play it for eternity in hell, they’ve already been given plenty of other reasons to play fair and follow through, even if it means revealing the secrets they’ve been withholding from themselves and each other.
Mahoney’s script puts just the right amount of reality into those secrets, and the reasons this foursome would keep them buried. It’d be just about impossible to make a horror movie about an enchanted board game without a heavy layer of camp comedy and self-awareness, and Gatlopp obliges in that regard, with a wink-wink attitude toward all the confrontations and twists the game summons up. An animated opening credits sequence, with CG pieces sailing through the air to a musical theme that summons up Beetlejuice-era Danny Elfman, sets a bouncy tone that clearly says “Don’t take any of this too seriously.”
But there’s some authentic sadness to these characters as well, as they confront the ways their individual adult lives betrayed the simple friendship of their younger days and the way they’ve let down each other and themselves. There’s a solid structure at work here, as first-time feature director Alberto Belli uses lighting and production design to put flashbacks to the characters’ collective past in contrast with their current lives. It feels like a budget decision as much as a thematic one that sets both eras in the same house, Cliff’s inherited family home. But while that decision can feel restrictive, it works in the movie’s favor as well, to show both how little and how much difference seven years has made to everyone in this story, and how far they’ve veered from where they once expected to be.
And while the reveals are often broad and pat, the cast does an admirable job of selling them. A late-film reveal about a dark secret Samantha’s been sitting on feels so abrupt and so anguished that it could easily veer into the territory of Phoebe Cates’ infamous “How Daddy died at Christmas” speech from the original Gremlins. But Raver-Lampman drops the camp aspects and puts herself so fully into the moment that she gives the audience a reason to care about the outcome of a relationship they didn’t have a hint about five minutes earlier.
That moment doesn’t pull Gatlopp far away from its overall air of a pleasantly playful time-waster, the kind of diversion meant for cult horror fans looking for something they haven’t seen on screen before a thousand times already. It’s the kind of film that feels tailor-made for audiences at Fantastic Fest, at a midnight drive-in screening, or in the woozy late hours of a Halloween party, where everyone’s simultaneously keyed up and worn out. In spite of its high-stakes threats of eternal torment, it’s a movie with such a low buy-in that its cheap look feels charming, and its comparatively tight and effective crafting seems admirable. If horror fans can look past that clunky title, they’ll find more fun in Gatlopp than the description “adult spin on the original Jumanji” initially seems to promise.
Gatlopp debuts for on-demand and digital rental or purchase on June 16.