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 émi­gré 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.