Casinos, whether in Las Vegas or Monte Carlo, have proven to be the perfect settings for movies. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. Using sudden riches has long been a fallback theme for screenwriters, and casinos provide a totally believable path to instant wealth.
Las Vegas casinos possibly have the highest concentration of performers to be found anywhere in the world, providing a setting for the “rising star” movie. The fact that hundreds of millions of dollars in cash is on hand at all times makes casinos the perfect backdrop for the classic heist caper. The wide range of individuals and human interaction is excellent fodder for comedies. The fact that gamblers seem to be inherently superstitious provides ample opportunities for plot development. The history of Las Vegas and the pressures of building a casino empire is the perfect basis for dramas. Casinos are such a part of the world’s culture they even make appearances in animated features.
Many of the casino films, like Casino, are considered masterpieces. Others, like Showgirls, become cult classics. Even relatively bad ones like Vegas Vacation have found a place in pop culture. Only one genre has failed to gain any real traction with a casino back drop; the horror film.
Casinos are among the top vacation spots in the world. Additionally, casino games are so popular that they are the fastest growing segment of the online gaming world which is clearly evident with online sites like PokerStars expanding their offerings to include a casino section as well as social games and solo play apps. Even with the popularity of casinos, horror films continue to miss the mark when they are set among slots and craps tables.
A Small Screen Success
One of the earlier and more success stories set in a casino was actually intended for the small screen. When Rod Serling learned that CBS had given the green light to his Twilight Zone concept, he and his wife went to Las Vegas to celebrate. During the trip Serling’s wife won and he lost. Serling’s nemesis was one particular slot machine and the writer became somewhat obsessed with “beating” that particular machine.
Serling turned his Vegas trip into an episode for the series’ first season called The Fever. In the episode a couple wins a trip to Las Vegas. Franklin, the husband, wins big but eventually puts his winnings and more back into the machine. The machine is evidently not satisfied with its victory and begins talking to Franklin and chasing him through the hotel (unseen by those around Franklin of course) until it causes Franklin to jump from the balcony.
Serling returned to the theme two more times during the series’ network run.
The Big Screen Hits and Misses
In terms of horror film hits with a casino theme or backdrop, there are only a couple of examples.
The remake of the 1985 classic Fright Night is perhaps the best of the lot. You have vampires, Las Vegas showgirls, and casino magicians, all in the perfect 24 hour city. The 2011 remake, while not as successful as the original, was well received and reviewed and offered the perfect mix of horror, tension, and comedy, along with the prerequisite hot girlfriend.
Milla Jovovich’s third appearance as Alice in the Resident Evil franchise, Resident Evil: Extinction, was the most successful to date. In this installment, Alice must fight the Umbrella Corporation’s Alice clones which were created in an attempt to copy her unique powers. While Alice doesn’t gamble in the traditional sense, she does go to battle in a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas that is shown in perfect detail.
The casino horror film misses on the other hand are the most common.
In Haunted Casino, originally titled Dead Man’s Hand, Matthew Dragna inherits a derelict casino form his uncle. Matthew, his girlfriend and some friends go to see exactly what our hero’s windfall entails. Of course the casino is inhabited by angry and lethal ghosts of a former mobster and his henchman. The film offers little in terms of nuance and is basically just a retelling of the hackneyed “young people try to survive the night” story.
The creator of the first two films in the Hostel series, Eli Roth, had no involvement with the third installment. Set in Las Vegas instead of a European city, the direct-to-dvd film is just another in a long line of generic slasher movies and offers little in terms of plot, suspense, or entertainment.
The third of the Leprechaun series likewise made its debut on video instead of in theatres. While it would seem that Las Vegas casinos would provide a rich setting for our villain’s search for his gold and charms, Leprechaun 3 is basically just a bad comedy and a worse horror film.
Twilight made vampires cool, and while they had a rich legacy of vampire films to draw from, Vegas Vampires was not one of them. Ex-WWE wrestler “Tiny” Lister stars as a Las Vegas cop whose goal is to wipe out a group of vampires threatening Sin City. The acting and the script make Lister’s WWE performances look like Masterpiece performances in comparison.
According to some legends, the term “eighty-six” originated in Las Vegas and referred to someone who was taken “eight miles out [into the desert] and place six feet deep.” That would have been a fitting fate for Ray Dennis Steckler’s Las Vegas Serial Killer. Steckler has never turned out a “good” movie, but this one is bad enough to be considered possibly the worst horror film of all time. The scenes are too long, the dialogue is overdubbed (badly), the plot is basically non-existent, and the acting is truly abysmal.
Why the Genre Fails
There is perhaps a very good reason that casino based horror films fail, despite being such a rich source of plot lines; casinos are simply not perceived as scary or potentially unsafe. Instead, casinos represent the ultimate fantasy and escape and are essentially an adult amusement park. This “safe haven” aspect of casinos is such that the idea of James Bond facing some of his most diabolical foes across the baccarat table with both conducting themselves as gentlemen is not far-fetched. People hit the tables and play the games as a form of entertainment, which is enhanced by the prospect that the next card, spin, or roll could be the one that results in a life changing jackpot. Simply put, the fun and excitement of the casino floor just doesn’t set the mood for a good horror flick.