Four friends start playing a mysterious board game without reading the rules — rules that state they must have a winner by sunrise or they will all have to play in hell for eternity.
An all-night drinking game. A “mistake wall”, papered with polaroids of meet-ups they’d rather forget. A lot of secrets. Actually that’s quite a typical gathering of friends who go way back, and it’s also what makes GATLOPP — a film about a supernatural board game that primly condemns its losing players to hell — enjoyably believable.
“I couldn’t find anything on Google at all,” says Cliff to his friends Samantha, Troy and Paul about the brightly-hued game he’s found in his second-hand credenza. Me neither, Cliff, and I started Googling as soon as the trailer hit my inbox. I also had to look up credenza, and Brits, it’s a sideboard.
Cliff at least explains early on what GATLOPP means and where it comes from: a Swedish term meaning gauntlet, as in running the gauntlet. The Iroquois used to force a prisoner to run a deadly gauntlet (between two lines of their captors) and if they made it through alive, all the prisoners were released.
And they decide to play the game after that? Sorry if I’m bringing my biases with me; board game aficionados make my mind boggle. I’m not a fan, particularly of Monopoly, a game that routinely goes on so long I’m convinced this film is basically its metaphor: the potentially interminable running time (in hell, for all eternity) and the cross words exchanged between otherwise good friends.
For Cliff, the unsung linchpin of the group, this is a chance to connect four people who have been following different paths for nearly a decade. For the rest, it’s initially an inconvenience, and eventually only agreed to because they need to cheer Paul up. Sadly for them, they don’t bother reading all the rules first, which might have given them a clue as to what lay in store; Cliff sees them as too trivial.
Pursuit of truth is the relentless aim of whatever mocking spirit lies behind GATLOPP, with liars and prevaricators punished until they own up. The four — TV mastermind Samantha (Emmy Raver-Lampman), failing actor Troy (Sarunas J Jackson), stoned underachiever Cliff (Jon Bass) and newly divorced, very bitter Paul (Jim Mahoney, who also wrote the screenplay) — are finally forced to spill secrets about their friendships then scrabble to bridge the fissures that creates, as without working together they can’t survive the night. Yet while their honestly might save them from eternal damnation, there’s a risk it could also destroy them forever in other ways.
Despite its claustrophobic setting — GATLOPP is mostly coffee table-based, with forays into purgatory, the past and Cliff’s bathroom — this is an indie with the sensibility and vision of a bigger movie.
The runtime is only 80 minutes, which doesn’t leave much space for introspection. Direction from Alberto Belli is snappy and frenetic but not ridiculously frantic. The comedy is situational rather than slapstick, and despite a lack of one liners, it’s still often very funny. I particularly liked one character’s reddened complexion after a flying visit to Hades — “a suntan suits you!” remarks his oblivious ex later — and poor Cliff’s leg wound, which his friends tend to like a live action version of Operation, shoving him back onto a table and trying to extract a giant wooden arrow.
The dialogue is always believable, though what really makes GATLOPP fly is the chemistry-laden, perfectly timed interactions between the four main performers. Whether bantering, arguing or desperately persuading, they perfectly embody the complexities, insecurities and rivalries of friends who’ve been drifting apart yet still know too much about each other and not enough. Their fracture points and dark corners of the soul are all too human (special mention to Emmy Raver-Lampman, superb as Sam, burying herself in her work to hide her guilt and loneliness; and Jon Bass as Cliff, slightly desperate and under-appreciated).
The wall of mistakes is used throughout the film, as we see flashbacks to some of the events pictured, particularly a party, at Cliff’s of course, that now threatens to blow the foursome apart as truths are finally revealed. The punishments the game dishes out for the players’ initial lack of frankness take many different forms (this is a game that likes to troll its players) though the easy favourite for me was a 1980s Jazzercise routine which the four have to instantly choreograph and perform to save themselves from eternal damnation.
With sunrise encroaching on Cliff’s darkened apartment, one of them is left to make a snap decision that could save or condemn the rest. The ending works well, and didn’t leave me feeling short-changed, while also being supremely understanding of the realities of human nature. GATLOPP’s message — that most people are mostly fine, most of the time — makes a refreshing change, I guess. Who knows, maybe now we can expect more movies based on games and activities. Twister would make a perfect body horror (it already is if you’ve previously birthed a large baby, or recently eaten baked beans). Or for the younger, more bloodthirsty viewer, Hungry Hippos with real hippos. And so many jigsaws were swapped during lockdown via our street WhatsApp group I’m surprised no one’s made a low-budget horror about whole families disappearing into them. After all, what is a jigsaw but beauty dismembered?
GATLOPP: Hell Of A Game is available on digital download in the US and UK now.
Watch the GATLOPP trailer now: