Turning Back the Clock – Did Poker Night Prove Horror and Poker Can Mix?

Poker night

Poker nightOn the face of it, the horror genre and the classic card game of poker don’t really go hand-in-hand. When you think of horror movies, you tend to think about mysterious murderers or possessed individuals; certainly more so than a group of guys crowded round a smokey poker table going all-in with the nuts.

Nevertheless, the 2014 film, Poker Night somehow manages to fuse the horror concept with a gentleman’s game of poker involving a group of current and former police officers.  Produced by Wingman Productions, the company which gave us Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever and Chasing Ghosts, this film was director, Greg Francis’ debut on the big screen.

Review of Poker Night

On the face of it, Poker Night had a lot of promise. The cast featured a good selection of solid television stars from the United States, notably Beau Mirchoff, Michael Eklund and Halston Sage. Stan Jeter, played by Mirchoff, is a rookie police officer who has recently secured a promotion to Detective. Following an act of heroism in the public eye, Jeter is asked to attend the regular home poker game involving a select group of retired police officers who wish to impart their many years of experience upon Stan by regaling stories of apprehending murder suspects dating back as far as the late 1970s.

As each retired cop tells Jeter of their experience, the movie switches to a flashback scenario of each story, but with Stan as the protagonist. He’s placed himself in the shoes of the retired cops to see how it would feel. The flashback-style directing harks back to Christopher Nolan’s Memento released in 2000. After the poker game, Stan is required to respond to a domestic dispute 911 call – but it’s a trap, and he is tasered and kidnapped by the masked man.

Having played a home game of Texas Hold’em poker with the cops and digested all of their previous ordeals, Stan uses those experiences to summon the strength to survive his own kidnap ordeal. Just like at the poker table with his superiors, Stan is in his very own heads-up game of poker with the kidnapper, having to work out how to bluff his way out of the situation alive.

Unfortunately, that’s where the platitudes for this film start to dry up. As the action begins to hot up, the confusing voiceover narration and unnecessary switches between flashbacks and real-life result in the audience losing track of what exactly is real. The sensory overloads also mean that there are very few genuine surprises lurking around the corner, resulting in the lack of suspense that most must-watch horror films have in abundance. Nevertheless, it was a notable attempt, with engaging cinematography for the flashbacks and plenty of gore – if you like that kind of thing from your horror movies.

Hollywood’s obsession with casinos

The use of casinos and card games has become a staple in successful Hollywood movies in the last few decades. There’s something about the exclusivity and the glitz and glamour of casino floors which add an extra layer of theatre to films that other locations simply cannot. Furthermore, the exponential growth of casino games, poker and even bingo in popular culture means that people can increasingly relate to these settings and scenarios. Let’s take a look at some of the most successful Hollywood films to feature gambling environments.

Poker playing movie

  • Casino Royale
    Both the 1967 original and the 2006 remake of the James Bond classic are centred around a land-based casino called Casino Royale. The original is based very loosely on Ian Fleming’s inaugural James Bond novel, with Casino Royale situated on top of a secret underground headquarters of SMERSH. Meanwhile, in the 2006 Daniel Craig version, James Bond enters a high-stakes poker tournament at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, as he seeks to defeat Le Chiffre once and for all, handing him and his information over to the British government. The poker game is central to the action here, with Bond eventually triumphing in a multi-hand pot with a straight flush.
  • Rounders
    Matt Damon’s performance in the 1998 drama film Rounders was sensational. Timed perfectly to coincide with the growing popularity of Texas Hold’em poker, director, John Dahl depicts the life story of a gifted law student and poker player, Mike McDermott, who has aspirations of securing a place at the World Series of Poker. After blowing his poker bankroll and securing a loan to win back his losses, Mike eventually defeats Russian mobster, Teddy KGB to earn enough money to quit law school and pursue his dream of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
  • Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen
    Inspired by the 1960 original, Ocean’s Eleven reached our screens in 2001 with a star-studded cast including George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon once again. Set in the hustle and bustle of the glitzy Las Vegas strip, Danny Ocean – played by George Clooney – sets about planning a heist to steal $160 million from Terry Benedict, the man who stole Ocean’s ex-wife, Tess. The storyline was so fun and engaging that a trilogy was born, with Ocean’s Twelve sending Ocean and his troops to Europe in a bid to retrieve enough money to pay back Benedict’s losses. Meanwhile Ocean’s Thirteen sees Ocean recall his clan to take down ruthless casino owner, Willy Bank, who double-crossed Ocean’s close friend, Reuben Tishkoff. The franchise has proven so successful that there are plans afoot to release Ocean’s Eight – an all-female spin-off – in 2018.

What could the next poker-themed horror movie look like?

Poker Night proved that poker can certainly play a starring role at the heart of a horror movie. For argument’s sake, if we were Hollywood film directors and we had to devise a script for a poker-themed movie this Halloween, here’s what comes to mind:

  • Zombie fever
    There are thousands of poker players that visit Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker Main Event. A zombie outbreak at the Rio All-Suite Hotel would certainly set the cat among the pigeons! The film would feature some of the world’s best real-life poker professionals as zombified players in cameo roles, with the protagonist needing to battle his way through the 5,000+ field to reach the final table, up against eight zombified finalists. It’s then a race against time as to whether he can survive – both at the table and physically!
  • Cyber-crime
    The threat of ransomware is enormous in 2018. Even enormous organisations such as the UK’s National Health Service have suffered ransomware attacks. This film would be based on a group of cyber-criminals that hack into the US government’s servers and infect them with ransomware. In order to retrieve the sensitive files on America’s nuclear capabilities, the President must defeat the poker genius within the group of cyber-criminals at a heads-up game of Texas Hold’em on one of 888poker’s Pokercam tables. The President can be viewed by the cyber-criminal on webcam during each hand, which adds further tension to the storyline, as the President tries not to give away his pocket Aces… The game is also streamed around the world via online streaming platform Twitch, as the American people know the security of their nation hangs by a thread.
  • Disappearing acts
    Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween without a movie featuring characters that mysteriously disappeared. Our final movie pitch would be a home game of poker between friends in a log cabin for a fun weekend away in the woods over Halloween. However, each time a player was eliminated from the game, they would disappear from the cabin moments later, never to return. It falls to the winner of the heads-up battle to discover all eight of their friends held hostage by an axe murderer in the cellar!

Would you commission any of these storylines? Which one is your favourite out of the three? Let us know!

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