Gambling Meets Horror: Previewing “Poker Night”


When the Ben Affleck/Justin Timberlake thriller Runner Runner came out in 2013, some thought that the gambling film genre might be shifting just a bit. Indeed, while there have been a number of outstanding gambling films made throughout the years, many of them resemble one another in certain ways to the point that there’s a common atmosphere among them all.  
We touched on this somewhat in a previous post on the secret to a great gambling film, citing suspense and enticement as common themes. And in looking through great gambling films of the past, the concept holds true through each and every one of them. Suspense, enticement, and a gradual build-up of intrigue through the actual games, or the circumstances around them, are the factors that tend to make gambling films successful. This is one reason Runner Runner was initially so intriguing. Yes, it had some of the traditional elements of a classic gambling film, but it modernized the concepts and attempted to build intrigue more through sex appeal and danger than through actual gaming.  
Whether or not this represented any kind of lasting shift in gambling films remains to be seen, though Runner Runner itself was seen critically as a fairly substantial disappointment. However, it’s interesting to note that 2014 will bring us the first major gambling-related film since Runner Runner, and it once again looks like something of a break from traditional genre elements. Poker Night, from writer/director Greg Francis, debuts later this year and blends gambling themes with what looks to be a classic horror film setup.  
This wouldn’t be the first time horror and gambling have blended together, as there is a certain link between the high risk of gambling and the prickling feeling you get down your spine from a genuine scare. We see little touches of it in the darker moments of casino films – such as when Laurence Fishburne’s character is about to beat card counters to within inches of their lives in 21, when Ben Affleck feeds an enemy to crocodiles in Runner Runner, or even when Matt Damon is on the verge of losing an all-important chip stack to John Malkovich’s iconic “Teddy KGB” character in Rounders. The same link between fear and gambling is manifested in lighter ways through some of the modern online gaming sites that are transforming the poker and casino industries in general. Betfair’s Casino carries plenty of ordinary games, but among its themes you’ll find plenty of darker themes, from Wolverine and Batman backdrops
to “Haunted House” and “Bermuda Triangle” games, and even a Ghost Rider film slot machine. 
But despite these examples, Poker Night looks to be the first major instance in which a gambling film has dived fully into the horror genre. Details are fairly thin on the intriguing new poker film, but going off of the early synopsis posted on IMDB, the plot will concern a new detective’s introduction to the horrors that surround him. Stan Jeter (Beau Mirchoff) attends a poker night that’s traditional for newly appointed detectives, during which he gets to play with the best men on the force and hear stories from their time on the job. On his way home from the game, however, Jeter is captured by a psychopath. Inexperienced with such matters himself, he must rely on the stories he heard at poker night to save himself and a fellow captive.  
Mirchoff is a relative newcomer to the big screen, having established himself primarily on various television show. However, some may remember him as Drew from the ambitious but strange 2011 sci-fi film I Am Number Four. Beyond Mirchoff, the cast for Poker Night is actually quite intriguing, beginning with Giancarlo Esposito (as in, Gus Fring from Breaking Bad) and also including Ron Pearlman, whose character (named Calabrese) we can only presume will be the psychopath who abducts Detective Jeter. 
Just what sort of tone this film establishes will be interesting to see. Its own synopsis compares it to the iconic horror thriller Seven, and it certainly looks to be the first true combination of the gambling and horror genres. But whether it represents a continued shift away from classic gambling film styles, simply a strong, inventive thriller, or even a total bust remains to be seen!

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2 thoughts on “Gambling Meets Horror: Previewing “Poker Night”

  1. Hey! Thanks for writing about Poker Night! We’re really excited about the film – and hope it will be more of a strong, inventive thriller than a total bust. We have a great cast – and hope to have a really fun film.

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