Collectively, humans kinda suck. We have the capacity for such selfishness and greed at the expense of our personal well-being and the well-beings of those around us, and the temptation to slip into our baser impulses is constant and should be reprehensible. Writer-director Dean Yurke’s horror film Stay Out Stay Alive runs with this observation as an appeal to our better natures, showing us a collection of unsavory protagonists who make us hope that we’re better than they are. But watching the karmic consequences of their actions is pretty worthwhile, too.
A group of five college-age friends goes camping in a state park, warned by a park ranger (Barbara Crampton, appropriately creepy in the archetypical harbinger role) of the dangers inherent in the abandoned mines that can be found throughout the area. So, of course, one of these friends, Donna (Sage Mears), wanders off in the night and falls down an abandoned mineshaft, trapping her leg under a rock. While trying to get her out, though, the friends discover that the mine is full of gold, apparently enough to make each of them rich, so they all agree to hold off on calling for help until they can get enough gold out to pay off their student loans and build affluent lives for themselves. However, the further they dig and the more gold they uncover, the stranger their behaviors become, and ominous omens start to appear on land said to be a cursed Native American burial ground.
The protagonists of this tale are uniformly naïve, selfish, self-absorbed, and obnoxious to an almost absurd degree, which should tell you everything you need to know about the level of parable Stay Out Stay Alive is operating on. When Amy (Christina July Kim) fumbles her way through the woods looking for a way out, you know she’s as much a victim of her own stupidity as any supernatural forces at work. When Reese (Brandon Wardle) starts prioritizing gold over the lives and safety of his friends, you know that the potential for such a turn was always present, regardless of how possessed he might be by the spirit of greed. When Donna proudly proclaims that she doesn’t need to go to a hospital because “I’m a nurse; I am the hospital!” you intrinsically understand that the mental gymnastics these folks go through are enough justification for any ill fate they may suffer.
And the resulting horror is a solid exploration of the consequences of that willful arrogance. Though the reliance on tropes of Native American mysticism is a bit cliched and othering, the themes of imperialism and the sinful pull of avarice are potent. More unsettling than actually scary, the film spends much of its runtime leaning into ambiguity as to how real the supernatural elements are, heavily implying that madness runs deep in the gold-blinded psyches of these people. It functions both as literal haunting and allegorical psychological deconstruction, towing a line that keeps you guessing until a legitimately gripping climax.
Stay Out Stay Alive isn’t a reinvention of its genre or even a particularly deep exploration into the nature of human greed – in spite of the literal depths of the story’s mineshaft – but it is a very solid genre exercise that competently uses the tropes and tools of psychological horror to remind us to be careful of what we wish for. As consequences spin out of control and these characters further dig themselves into trouble, you might just find yourself wondering when you would walk away from this situation. It’s entirely possible that any of us would be just as short-sighted and selfish if given the opportunity. And that’s the truly unsettling part.