The “trapped in sadistic games” subgenre is a pretty underpopulated one at present. We have the Saw franchise, and soon its spin off Spiral. We have the Cube films, one of which is pretty great and the rest of which are pretty made for TV. There’s The Collector, I guess, but that’s more a reverse Home Alone and the sequel kind of sucked. Yet people do seem to love these twisted games despite of, or maybe even because of, the relative scarcity. There’s certainly few enough genuinely great examples! This is where Alice In Borderland comes in.
An entire series filled with life or death traps hapless captives are forced into. Some physical, some mental, some competitive, and most interesting of all some emotional… Not to give too much away, but these four different styles of games are structured around a deck of playing cards and you know you’re in for something especially sadistic when a Hearts game comes up, as that’s the emotion games. While the Hearts are the showstoppers, every game is pretty damn diabolical with a twist baked into each one, frequently a cruel twist that can really drive the tension. Especially when the reveal is something easily overlooked right at the start of the game and it being left out in plain sight is pure sadism adding insult to all the injury that follows.
A solid idea only gets you so far, as I heavily threw shade above at the majority of entries to this subgenre, yet for at least this first series Alice In Borderland holds up pretty damn well for the most part. An expansive cast of characters with their own individual wants, needs, and weaknesses to add in further conflict to a nightmare scenario are all brought to life by a strong cast. The dubbing cast do a great job of matching up with their Japanese counterparts, but I may yet give this an original language re-watch in the run up to a series two. It’s a fun collection of characters brought to life by some serious talent.
Purely talking cinematography, you’re in for plenty of treats here. This alternative Tokyo turned into a giant murder-arena is a neon wonderland filled with interesting locations and more than a few death lasers to chuck some additional colourful lighting into the mix (and sometimes through a character’s head). What Alice In Borderland actually has to offer is really diverse, just when you think you know what you’re getting into it will pivot to some new way to expand the concept. It’ll be surreal, then a brain teaser death trap, then an exploration of stress and depression, then a massive action scene. All of this handled brilliantly by a really strong team, especially the action scenes which are always a treat showing off brilliant imaginative choreography. It’s not just the games you need to watch, but the other players, and some of the fights you get as these characters battle for their lives are a brilliant spectacle.
Of course, this being a horror review, there are scares to talk about here. Throwing your characters into do-or-die traps they need to think their ways out of has obvious torture and threat of death hooks to play with, and the series doesn’t skimp there. Even if a character succeeds, there’s no guarantee they’ll escape unscathed, and this subgenre thrives based on how imaginative it can get. If you’re here for those imaginative death traps? You aren’t going to be disappointed with Alice In Borderland.
There is some content warning worthy stuff lurking in here too, which is done well but may still be too much for some. Mass shootings can be a little too real, and you’ve got that in spades here. There’s also a sexual assault scene to be aware of later in the series that is uncomfortable but doesn’t go too far. Those caveats aside, and I would recommend still watching if at all possible, there’s a deeper solid foundation to the scares here. The real fridge horror of the series, the scenarios you can put yourself into inside your head to lose sleep over, definitely come when you see a Hearts game. The series will explain it better, and I wouldn’t want to spoil anything, but the series creators really turn the screws on their characters for a Hearts game. The other games can get nasty, but those are on a whole new level.
I’m trying to think what this specific subgenre is right now… “Diabolical Traps”? Answers in the comments if you have a better label, but it’s kind of a sub-subgenre being an offshoot of the broader torture porn branch. Whatever the label, when it’s done, well, it’s a lot of fun and this is up there with the better examples of the series: Saw 1 & 2, the first Cube, the first of The Collector series. If those are your kind of thing, this will absolutely delight! If you can take them or leave them, you may yet still get some value out of Alice In Borderland. There’s an interesting mystery underpinning everything with little in the way of answers just yet, and it asks interesting questions about human nature and the resilience of society along the way.
This is a series with a lot to recommend, although it may not be for everyone and could still do better. It can slip into some down time that doesn’t really drive the plot and while interesting, tone shifts are still disruptive. Hopefully, a follow up series will take what a pretty damn strong team learned here and take it to even greater heights.
Luke Greensmith is an active folklorist and big horror fan who also works in film across a few roles. While this can cover quite a wide range of things, he’s a dedicated horror fan at heart and pretty involved with horror communities both online and local to him. You can find their folklore work on the Ghost Story Guys Podcast, their own LukeLore podcast, and accompanying the artist Wanda Fraser’s Dark Arts series as well as on the Grimoire of Horror itself.