Some movies have to climb a tall mountain to achieve any appreciation. Death Game proves this concept. The script took years to get produced, passed through several sets of hands prior to going into production and sat on the shelf for a few years before getting the most modest of releases. It had to wait until the VHS era to get any meaningful sort of exposure and was soon relegated to footnote status by genre professionals, usually getting attention for (A) being a “Celebrity Skin” skeleton in the closet for its two female leads and (B) being spoken of in sour terms, if at all, by stars Sondra Locke and Seymour Cassel.
However, one should look past the circumstances of a film to judge what actually made it onto the screen. If approached on those terms, Death Game is a fascinating piece of work: it toys with viewer expectations and gender roles to deliver an edgy, darkly humorous experience that plays like an avant-garde chamber piece that somehow escaped into exploitation film territory.
The plot restricts itself to a basic set of variables: George Manning (Cassel) is a middle-aged husband and father who finds himself alone on his birthday when his wife travels to another city for a family medical situation. His solitude ends when a pair of nymphets, Jackson (Locke) and Donna (Colleen Camp), emerge from a rainy night to knock on his door. George allows himself to be seduced when the duo sneaks into his deluxe bathtub… and that’s where the trouble begins. First, Jackson and Donna refuse to leave, then begin making veiled threats. Just when George thinks he’s gotten rid of them, they take him prisoner in his own house. This leads to a weekend full of head games, brutality, destruction and unexpected outcomes for all involved.
Death Game was the only full directorial credit for Peter Traynor, a successful businessman who made an attempt at being an indie producer/filmmaker in the ’70s (his other directing credit, Evil Town, is a paste-up job where footage from a film he made was reworked with new footage by other filmmakers). The cast is quick to debate how responsible he is for the end product on Death Game but the result remains a heady, unexpectedly confrontational experience.
The film starts with the kind of plot setup that could be used for a sexploitation film (in fact, a porn filmmaker actually made a knock-off of Death Game before it was produced called Little Miss Innocence). Death Game sets up that expectation by including a wild, disco-scored bathtub seduction scene that goes over the top with steam, dissolves and lust-crazed facial expressions from Locke and Camp.
However, both script and direction reveal another set of ambitions the morning after the seduction. George quickly tries to extricate himself from his dalliance, only to discover that he has shifted from being seducer to plaything for his two unexpected guests. It begins with antisocial behavior and a subtle refusal to obey his cues as the man of the house. Locke and Camp’s performances take on a feral, untamed edge here. It often feels like you’re watching some particularly intense improv class exercises as they shift between faux-sweetness, gleeful brattiness and barely veiled hostility.
Death Game starts to wreak aesthetic havoc once Jackson and Donna have George at their mercy. The avant-garde edge to the anti-heroines’ performances shifts over into the filmmaking, with the dazzling photography and deliberately jagged editing by David Worth taking things to the next level. You could argue that Worth is the film’s secret weapon: his techniques create an edgy stylization that puts you into George’s shoes as he is teased and tortured by his opponents. His scope-format visuals can shift on a dime from elegant, sweeping camerawork to unnerving handheld shots, he effectively uses slow-mo to accentuate moments of destruction and he deploys bursts of sharp, speedy cutting and overlapping sounds to draw out the chaos of a violent sequence.
The final half-hour goes into overdrive alongside Locke and Camp’s performances, revealing its endgame during a sequence where Jackson and Donna put George on trial in his living room. Both women have had brutal experiences with predatory men and George is doomed to stand trial for the libertine nature of his species, who can seduce women, write it off as “a mistake” and go on without a care in the world.
This adds an interesting texture to these anti-heroines, who are smarter and more pointed in their cruelty than garden variety psychos. They supplement their physical cruelty with a pointed dissection of his morals and decency and their intelligence enhances the threat they pose.
George isn’t a bad man – you’re likely to sympathize with him as he’s terrorized – but he’s guilty of trying to have his cake and eat it, too. His tragic misfortune is that the women who stand in judgment of him want him to pay for the sexual crimes of all men. Therein lies the unexpected, highly subversive sting in this film’s tail: you go in thinking you’re getting a sexed-up psycho flick but what you really get is a vicious dissection of male arrogance and hypocrisy.
Cassel does a good job of showing a flawed man getting dismantled as he struggles to hang on to his self-image. There’s an odd tinge to the performance as Cassel left the production before doing ADR, which led to his entire performance being post-dubbed (by DP/editor Worth, no less). In a strange way, this actually aids the film because the hollow, detached sound of his dialogue just accentuates the hollow quality of the man, who thinks he represents decency but is ultimately a hypocrite. It also makes more room for the performances of Locke and Camp, who are on fire here. Locke plays a knowing manipulator while Camp plays a damaged “baby doll” archetype, both hitting and achieving a level of sustained delirium that is crucial to making the film work.
In short, Death Game remains a potent exercise in mixing shock effects with rebellious intelligence, the kind of film that has built a devoted cult following because it manages to transform the concept of “bait and switch” into a virtue. It even earned a Keanu Reeves-starring remake, Knock Knock, courtesy of superfan Eli Roth. It remains well worth hunting down for devotees of exploitation at its most artsy and confrontational.
Blu-Ray Notes: after decades of inferior, cropped standard definition transfers, Grindhouse Releasing rescued this film from home video oblivion with a 2-disc blu-ray special edition with a spectacular new transfer in its original screen ratio. Keep an eye out here for an in-depth review of that set, coming soon to Schlockmania…