Before Halloween and the Friday The 13th sequels popularized the faceless killer, audiences expected a cinematic mass murderer to have both personality and psychology. The success of Psycho, not to mention Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, made these two elements vital to the success of any kill-crazed horror shocker. These films downplay the “racking up a body-count” element that people expect from modern-day psycho/slasher fare but they place a major emphasis on detailed psychological problems and crazy backstories that offer a different kind of reward.
The Name Of The Game Is Kill is a lesser-known but entertaining example of the post-Psycho/Baby Jane approach in action. The protagonist is Symcha Lipa (Jack Lord), an immigrant hitching his way through a brutally hot stretch of desert. Salvation seems to arrive when friendly, sexy driver Mickey (Susan Strasberg) shows up and offers him a ride to the service station that she operates with her family. Said family consists of pleasant but distant Mom (T.C. Jones), bitter older sis Diz (Collin Wilcox) and mentally disturbed “baby doll”-style little sis Nan (Tisha Sterling). No one besides Mickey seems to want him there and they all have secret troubles they don’t want to discuss.
Symcha decides to hang in there due to the overtures of Mickey, who seems to be making a pass at him. When she suddenly turns cold, he quietly leaves the next morning – and is knocked off a bridge by a car that emerges from the service station! He recovers and decides to go back to see if he can discover who his mystery attacker is. In short order, the family secrets – and the people holding them – begin to unravel as everyone tells their own contradictory account of a past family tragedy. Before Symcha can discover the true story, he’ll have to face his would-be killer once more.
Films like this live and die by their scripts – and thankfully Gary Crutcher’s script here is energetic and colorful. The characterizations of the mysterious women, particularly deranged nymphet Nan, have a gleefully lurid quality to them and Crutcher puts the protagonist (and by proxy, the audience) through a pretty fast-moving variety of complications and twists that ensure the tale never gets dull. If you’re savvy enough with this kind of fare, you might guess the “big revelation” before it occurs in the final reel – but once it is unveiled, the film truly commits to its over-the-top insanity in a way that will leave fans of post-Psycho flicks smiling.
Better yet, The Name Of Game Is Kill boasts sturdy craftsmanship behind the camera. Director Gunnar Hellstrom was a Swedish emigre who mostly worked in television in the U.S. and he gives the film tight pacing and an economical yet visually stylish approach. He’s aided mightily in the establishment of that style by a couple of noteworthy names. The first is cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who would become an in-demand figure in Hollywood for the skills he shows here. His deft compositions and use of lighting make the limited settings atmospheric and also get maximum production value from the Arizona landscape.
Similarly, editor Lou Lombardo – who would soon work on The Wild Bunch – makes his presence felt here with some deft fast-cutting during setpieces, including a psychedelic hallucination that Symcha has after being hit by a car and an amazing scene where Nan does a frantic dance routine to an Electric Prunes song. Finally, composer Stu Phillips, who has scored everything from Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls to Battlestar Galactica, turns in an appropriately dramatic score that makes effective use of a creepy, lullaby-style motif.
Hellstrom also powers the small roster of characters with a strong cast. Lord would soon become better known for Hawaii Five-O but he turns an effective, understated performance here, holding the screen with the wilder female roles while giving the audience an identification figure to navigate this twisted tale with. Strasberg gives an intense yet charismatic performance as the most likeable of the sisters but it is Wilcox and Sterling who steal the show: Wilcox spits out her lines with the right mix of venom and desperation as the angry eldest daughter while Sterling delivers both smoldering sexuality and damaged charm as the child-woman temptress of the group.
Simply put, The Name Of The Game Is Kill is a psycho-thriller whose methods might not be as shocking as they once were – but they have acquired a vintage charm all their own. The film’s willingness to use the intricacies of storytelling as a way to rock and shock its viewers is the kind of retro technique that deserves to make a comeback.