It’s been over two years since the last Grindhouse Releasing blu-ray set, The Tough Ones, dropped. Thankfully, they’ve returned with a double blu-ray set for one of their most-awaited titles, Death Game – and the result is another classic in their catalog. Read on for a detailed breakdown of this set: it gives Criterion-caliber treatment to a deep-cut title, offering plentiful insight into its fascinating behind-the-scenes story.
Transfer: Grindhouse Releasing offers this title in its full ‘scope ratio for the first time on home video here, remastered in 4K from the original camera negative. If you’ve watched the cropped, washed-out versions of the film derived from an old SD master, this is a revelation. The colors are vivid and deep, detail has a new clarity and you can finally appreciate the fine job David Worth did shooting the film. The mono soundtrack is retained for this transfer and it has a robust sound free of distortion.
Commentary Track 1 (Colleen Camp and Eli Roth): an energetic, conversational track. The two participants are friends so there’s a breezy, fast-moving repartee at play here: Camp is wildly enthusiastic about the film and Roth peppers her with questions about her experience. Don’t let the playfulness fool you: Camp is able to offer granular detail about her choices in interpreting her character and scene-specific memories of the shoot while Roth weaves in some interesting bits about the elements of the film he chose to tweak in his remake Knock Knock.
Commentary Track 2 (Larry Spiegel and David Worth): the producer teams with the cinematographer/editor/Cassel dubber for this track. It’s a much more nuts-and-bolts-oriented proposition with lots of discussion of locations, which lenses/lights/equipment were used to achieve particular visual effects and behind-the-scenes tales from the shoot. You learn about the conflict between Cassel and Traynor, how the film’s famous “hot tub threesome” scene was shot and the challenges Worth faced dubbing Cassel’s dialogue in a pre-digital era.
Theatrical Trailer (02:41): a smartly edited vintage preview, presented in HD. It does a nice job of boiling down the narrative approach of the film (apparent sexploitation quickly curdling into a psycho-thriller) and also captures its unique visual/editing approach.
Little Miss Innocence (1972) (72:09): as revealed in David Szulkin’s liner notes for this set, this is a Chris Warfield-helmed sexploitation purportedly inspired by either a reading or description of the Death Game script while it was still in development. It’s pretty close to Death Game‘s premise and characterizations but is more sexploitation-oriented, eschewing overt violence and saving its psychological shocks for the third act. It also boasts three of the best actors working in L.A.’s softcore scene – Terri Johnson, John Alderman and Sandy Dempsey, the latter particularly effective as the Jackson stand-in – and it was shot by Ray Dennis Steckler! Vinegar Syndrome provided the excellent quality transfer for this bonus feature.
Ruthless: The Peter Traynor Story (1:49:39): an epic sitdown with the film’s director, conducted by fellow filmmaker and remaker of Death Game, Eli Roth. It’s less of a straight interview and more of two-hander chat, with Roth steering Traynor through a variety of topics. They cover Traynor’s entire life, including the Mad Men-style start of his successful career in insurance, the learning curve of transitioning to filmmaking and a successful later career turn that combined filmmaking with business. Death Game is covered extensively as the two discuss the project’s development, the many challenges of shooting and the serious conflict between star Seymour Cassel and Traynor. In an interesting move, there are periodic cutaways to Larry Spiegel and David Worth to either support Traynor’s recollections or provide an alternative point of view.
Colleen Camp: In The Moment (60:35) Roth returns here for an interview with Camp, who he met and befriended while working as an assistant in the film business. As with the Traynor piece, he takes a very hands-on approach in guiding the conversation and the results are even better here because the two have excellent chemistry and Camp is an enthusiastic interview subject. She discusses how she got the role through veteran Hollywood columnist James Bacon and goes deep into the creative process, humbly expressing gratitude to the generosity of her co-stars as actors. The freewheeling chat allows her touch on some interesting topics like the intersection of the film with feminism and she also tells great stories about Smile, Apocalypse Now and Game Of Death.
Sondra Locke Audio Interviews (14:42 and 44:07): a telephone chat with the star, conducted by Mike White for his Projection Booth podcast. It’s presented in two versions, a short one focused on Death Game and a longer version that discusses the entirety of her career. She doesn’t hold back in the Death Game portion of the chat, speaking freely about her low opinion of Traynor’s directing abilities and how she teamed with her costars to conduct their own performances. The longer chat is well worth a listen as she discusses everything from The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter to her work with Eastwood as well as why her directing career was short-lived. She manages to be incisive without being bitter (though she doesn’t suffer fools gladly) and the result offers an interesting insight into a distinctive, uncompromising talent who often found herself at odds with Hollywood’s machinations.
Game Changers (44:49): a two-hander video interview that brings back Spiegel and Worth to share their take on the production. Spiegel discusses how he came to work with Traynor, the nature of their working relationship and added detail into Seymour Cassel’s conflicts with both Traynor and the production. Worth shows off a nice dry wit as he gives plenty of insight into his choices as a cinematographer and editor, how his work on Death Game led to work with Clint Eastwood via Locke and the challenges of working around Cassel in both photographic and editing terms when he lost interest in participating. It’s a pleasant chat to observe, aided nicely by the friendly rapport between the two collaborators.
A Tale Of Two Scripts (44:10) an in-depth featurette that allows Michael Ronald Ross, co-writer of the original script, to offer his take on its strange path to the screen. You’ll learn about the real life experience with a hitchhiker that provided the germ of the idea for Death Game, how he struck up a screenwriting partnership with a fellow music writer and the long, convoluted development process for their script. There are tons of fascinating tales here, including a rewrite that almost became a vehicle for Richard Pryor and how the Jo Heims rewrite of the script completely took the property out of their hands and nearly made it a Clint Eastwood project. He’s honest about the ups and downs of the process but remains philosophical and witty. A particularly interesting bit at the end has him reading the alternative endings of different drafts of the script by different writers.
Still Galleries: a quintet of image collections are included here, including stills and ad/promo art as well as behind-the-scenes images, a Peter Traynor promo gallery and even multiple sketches for this set’s cover art.
Grindhouse Releasing Prevues: a full collection of trailers for existing and forthcoming Grindhouse releases. Fans of the label should take note of new trailers for future titles like Hollywood 90028, The Captive Female, Impulse and the unclassifiable Love Is Deep Inside as well as now-familiar spots for as yet unreleased titles like Family Enforcer and The Ice House.
As the above hopefully illustrates, this is a thorough package that gives you a three-dimensional portrait of the unique personalities and twists of fate that shaped this one-of-a-kind production. The package also includes an excellent liner notes booklet by David Szulkin: Schlockmania recommends you read it between watching the main feature and delving into the supplements as it is an excellent overture to the complex tale behind Death Game and even offers a few extra nuggets not covered in the extras. Finally, look out also for plentiful Easter eggs across both discs, including some of Traynor’s corporate videos and an eye-popping alternate trailer for The Ice House.
In short, another winner from the Grindhouse Releasing crew. Schlockmania’s already looking forward to their next one.
To read Schlockmania’s film review of Death Game, click here.