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REVIEW: Hold ‘Em

Poker-themed horror movies don’t exactly set the world alight. Despite this, a casino does make a tense setting for a film noir update like the 1999 Mike Hodges effort Croupier, and poker games do have a certain charm when it comes to thrillers like Rounders. But as far as horror is concerned, the two don’t exactly go hand in hand. Clay DuMaw’s 2014 indie effort Hold ‘Em tries its best to change that, but to little avail.

Amateur actor Richard Cooke plays Jake Emerson, a former world number one professional poker player who gets mixed up in an underground card game organized by the sinister Nathaniel Savage (played by Jay Storey, the only professional actor involved at the time). Also playing the game for the prize of $1 million are Emerson’s long-time rivals Cyrus Wolf (Peter Doroha) and Marcus Lester (David Iannotti). This is no ordinary underground poker game, however. Imagine if your life depended on getting the best hand ranking; well, that’s the exact implausible situation protagonist Emerson finds himself in. Things start to turn a bit Battle Royale as it transpires because the players aren’t just playing for the cash; they’re playing for their lives as well.

Hold ‘Em is DuMaw’s follow-up to the 2012 monster flick Get Out Alive, which did relatively well at recouping its $10,000 production budget through Amazon downloads. The film attempts to blend some of those “kill another to save yourself” elements we’ve all seen before in the aforementioned Battle Royale, the Saw franchise and even the Hunger Games trilogy. But these films do it better. Despite its attempt to appeal to horror fans, Hold ‘Em is first and foremost a poker movie.

The screenplay and script were actually written by lead actor Cooke who “just wrote” the idea down after being inspired by those televised, high-stakes poker games. “There’s so much pressure and you are on TV with millions of dollars on the line. What if these guys were playing for their lives?”, Cooke recounted. After approaching DuMaw with the idea, he wrote the script and convinced the cinematographer to cast him as the lead, despite him not having any prior acting experience. The rest is minor, low-budget, niche filmmaking history! NNY Living has published a pretty detailed feature article on Hold ‘Em with interviews with DuMaw and Cooke, which unfortunately makes for a better experience than the finished product.

One of the saving graces of the film, however, is its cinematography, which was captured mostly using handheld cameras. This P.O.V. style of filmmaking certainly helps to ramp up the drama and tension, and it adds an authentic sense of dread as one by one the characters are picked off. A couple of fun facts relating to the film are that each cast member provided their own wardrobe, and due to production taking place at night, the daytime scenes had to be digitally corrected. This correction is obvious in the final cut, but in a strange way, it supports the proceedings on screen.

Hold ‘Em was a recipient of the Official Selection for the 2014 Scare-A-Con Film Festival and was screened at the 2014 Buffalo International Film Festival, which for a low-budget, indie film made primarily by a group of friends isn’t bad at all. It was also available to purchase through Amazon, but seems to be unavailable at present; although if you do have a burning desire to watch it, we’re sure you’ll find a way! The final verdict is that Hold ‘Em is a perfectly respectful low-budget attempt at a themed horror/chiller, but we’re sure you’ve seen stuff like this done before and probably done better.

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