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Sleaze and haywire hippies have the upper hand in “Death Game”

The exploitation thriller from 1977 screens at AMC Madison 6 as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 11.

Header Image: A blonde woman (Sondra Locke) in a white tie and tuxedo à la Marlene Dietrich, exaggerated make-up eyebrows, and a wide-eyed deranged look on her face, is bathed in green light.

Middle-aged George Manning (Seymour Cassel)’s wife and child are out of town, leaving him free to enjoy his high-end stereo equipment in peace. Suddenly, two young women (Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp), drenched from rain, knock on the door. Lost on their way to a party and mixing up north and south in an address, they ask to use the phone so they can get to the correct destination. Once inside, they don’t leave, but instead proceed to carry out every attack on bourgeois values they can conceive of—including but not limited to group sex in a hot tub, eating with their hands, trying on clothes while jumping on the bed, conducting a mock trial, and leaving the cap off the ketchup.

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Manning’s invitation gives the women vampiric license to change the rules of normal social interaction. And the opening title for Death Game (1977), screening at AMC Madison 6 as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival on Monday, April 11, at 8 p.m., even warns viewers that this story is based on true events that should “serve to remind us that fate allows no man to insulate himself against the evil that pervades our society,” lest we too are drawn into the *death game*. Once the barrier has been crossed, George Manning is drawn into a brief moment of the aforementioned hot tub sex (accompanied by artsy superimpositions and a porn-funk groove), before being tortured and degraded by the women, Jackson (Locke) and Donna (Camp).

The supposed evil lurking in the hearts of women mostly consists of the younger generation not giving proper reverence to the values their fathers tried to instill in them (sarcastically laid out several times by the Ron Hicklin Singers’ song, “Good Old Dad,” which features ukulele and plenty of phaser accompaniment: cleaning your ears, walking the straight and narrow path, spanking your bottom when you’re bad, etc.), and using sexuality as an inroads to attack. The film belongs in a post-Manson wave of films about older men finding out just what those hippies were capable of, along with Joe (1970), Save The Tiger (1973), Breezy (1973) and Hardcore (1979). Death Game is more firmly committed to sleaziness than any of those. If psychotic lesbians want to take their clothes off, what audience could resist taking a look?

Death Game‘s claim that it’s “based on reality” appears to be false—likely an attempt to spice up a production mired with problems. Filming was actually finished in 1974, but the project took another three years in editing before finally reaching audiences in theaters in April 1977. Producer-turned-first time director Peter S. Traynor was reportedly in over his head, and deferred to veteran performers Cassel and Locke to direct scenes themselves.

Frustrations also led to Cassel avoiding any kind of post-production dialogue for the film, instead having all of his dialogue overdubbed by a different actor, David Worth. Despite that particular creative choice being made out of necessity, it’s actually bizarrely effective, both lending the movie a Giallo feel and accentuating the Everyman quality of Cassel’s character by replacing the actor’s wispy voice with a square-jawed paragon of American fatherhood.

Traynor’s haphazard “direction” really adds a unique quality to the proceedings, like he’s had a little too much to drink and is allowing thoughts better left unsaid in polite company to seep in through bouts of incoherence. Despite the warning of “the evil all around us,” it offers more insight into the psychology of its creator than anyone or anything else (1973’s The Baby is similar in this respect)—lack of respect for the traditional family structure will only lead to strife. Locke impeccably embodies the demonic feminine, chomping down on an apple. At the film’s climax, she even dons an androgynous Marlene Dietrich-esque face of white makeup with arched eyebrows, along with a top hat, tailcoat, white tie, and no pants. Camp takes the tack of a cloyingly loving but naive archetype and accentuates it to the point of contempt.

We’re living in a society that should respect the sanctity of a man and his record collection, but if dripping wet women can’t respect that, we might truly be living in our own localized hell. But then again, suffering largely comes down to attitude. Traynor may be overselling the symbolism of vinyl as a status symbol, or he may be unusually prescient in that respect.

Whether it has even one foot planted in reality, the basic story structure of Death Game was fertile enough for at least two remakes: one in Spain in 1980 as Vicious And Nude (Wikipedia informs us this version has even more sex and violence than the original), and most recently in 2015 as Knock Knock, Eli Roth’s slightly slicker take on the material, starring Keanu Reeves and a slightly-before-fame Ana De Armas. (The film also serves as the origin of that meme where Keanu is buried and forced to look at a phone.) Maybe it speaks to a more generalized sentiment masquerading as truth: Dad should be in control. Just look at what happens when he isn’t, but don’t neglect to remind yourself it’s only a movie.

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