Slasher films tend to follow a formula very closely. They present a scenario wherein someone has been so egregiously wronged that this character emerges psychologically broken to the point wherein his or her only means of expression becomes murdering others. Much in the same way Hollywood might seize on a popular concept of the day, production companies will be suddenly inspired to run with their own variations-on-a-theme (i.e. a killer with a chainsaw inspires a killer with a drill, etc.). So far as I’m concerned, there just isn’t that much variety within these pictures to make for any substantive observations about the differences, and I bow out, leaving these feasts for others to devour. Have at it!
But from time-to-time I will jump back into that fray. Occasionally I’ll discover an old slasher film I’ve only heard of but not seen airing on cable, so I’ll set the DVR or make it a night in. Because I do tend to gravitate toward providing coverage for older films, I’m also offered opportunities to view and review older films selected for new transfers from any number of companies; and I’m largely all-too-happy to give those a spin. Believe it or not, there are some gems lurking in the darkness still out there; I know I’ll never get to all of them in a single lifetime, but that won’t stop me from trying. Could that make me a serial killer? Maybe in some phantom universe …
All of this brings me to today: Deadly Games (1982) is a mostly bland iteration on the serial killer theme, but I’ll give it a few points for trying something a bit different. Though it’s relatively tame – especially by other contemporary attempts at cinema glory – a leaner cut may’ve made the end result a bit more memorable, though it still may’ve lacked one compelling lead performance (by killer or victim) to seriously break ground.
From the product packaging:
“A masked maniac with a penchant for a monster-themed board game is playing his own twisted game with the women of a small American town. Each time the dice is rolled, another victim meets a grisly end. Returning home to mourn the death of her murdered sister, Keegan befriends local cop Roger and reclusive cinema projectionist Billy – but soon finds herself in the killer’s sights.”
When the killer has to essentially pull the film to a halt and deliver a soliloquy about who he is, why he did it, and why he won’t stop, has the story bottomed out?
Don’t get me wrong: there are countless flicks who handle these kind of reveals with great effect, but Deadly Games just isn’t one of them. Who among us doesn’t appreciate when the story’s central character ‘needs a moment’ to stand up on his soapbox and cry out against the pains inflicted upon him by humanity, his government, or – gasp! – his closest friends? It can make for great cinema – the kind that produces goosebumps – but it’s staged here with a rather dull recounting by killer Roger Lane (played by Sam Groom) as the camera pulls back and back and back to leave our best baddie with the smallest presence in the frame.
Well, perhaps that’s exactly what writer/director Scott Mansfield intended.
His Games, after all, were scripted to take place in some anonymous small town in Anywhere, America where everyone who eats at the corner restaurant knows everybody else’s business. (Trust me: I grew up in one of these little haunts, so I know firsthand how they work.) Nothing happens in these places, so the gossip of day-to-day life becomes a living soap opera these residents create all on their own. It’s their entertainment. Having a serial killer take up residence and begin offing the neighbors finally graces them with a kind of celebrity status; and because that kind of thing never takes place here each and every one of them believes they could be next.
Sadly, what follows such an inspired opening paves the way for the film’s greatest weakness: it’s chocked full of small-town campiness.
In particular, our lead – Keegan (Jo Ann Harris) – relies on your accepting her girl-next-story beauty with one of the goofiest senses of humor on film. At times, it felt like Mansfield was trying to caricature the ‘funny girl’ who emerges from little stops all across the fruited plains; but what was intended to be humorous only felt more annoying as the story wore on. Adding a bit more clunk to the script, Mansfield kinda/sorta gifts each of his town lasses with a signature quirk – one’s a bit clueless; one’s a bit obsessed with gossip; one’s endlessly bawdy. It’s effective to a degree, but it’s all overplayed to the point of predictability here, and that provides the film with no solid foundation. Though it may be true to its environment, that doesn’t mean it makes for great storytelling, especially not when it’s relied on so exclusively.
Having grown up and left my small town, I can say assuredly that no one wants to go back there. While the setting might make for an interesting diversion, constructing the entire narrative around small town life might amp up one’s authenticity but it makes for somewhat boring bedfellows … and don’t even get me started on small town sex life (which even works its way into the script).
In particular, slasher films need a hook that takes them up a notch, and these Games have none. The through-line of the story here seems to be (without divulging the identity) to kill off all of the town’s best-looking women (which in itself could’ve been a hook, if it were written that way); and that’s not enough of a spine to give this visual creature a life of its own. Mansfield’s thriller kinda/sorta wanted to buck tradition – maybe even become the anti-serial-killer serial killer movie – but where’s the fun in that? As I’ve often said, stories like this are meant to maximize either scare factor or give audiences a chance to vicariously revel in bloodlust; and these Games feel nothing like a game. They’re fairly rote. They’re fairly routine. While a scene here or there might poke fun at the way these stories unfold (hello, cemetery scene), it’s all delivered with little to no aplomb so as to make the rising body count forgettable. That’s no way to die … not even in a small town.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t pose this closing thought: even with so many insignificant moments rolled into one, I could still argue that the film might have a chance with a leaner cut, a tighter edit, and maybe even greater exploration of what the story’s central board game fixation was all about. (Sure, I can posit a theory or two, but as a narrative device it just wasn’t given enough screen time here.) At one hour and thirty-five minutes, the thrills are simply spaced too far apart here; trimming the excess – especially when so much of it is just small-town life – would’ve minimally increased the excitement and maybe even made the killer seem a bit more ominous. As it stands, there’s just too much fluff, and that weight’s unnecessary.
Alas, this is one that’s hard to give any measure of an enthusiastic thumbs up, but if formulaic chills are your thing then maybe it’s worth a view. Deadly Games’ cast is a blend of the ordinary – no one stands out, not even its signature killer. Its examination of small-town psychology makes for a few interesting observations, but they’re not revelatory enough to deem them as anything that’ll redefine life as we know it. They’re novel – much as the people who come from small towns – and that’s it. The great Steve Railsback turns in a solid supporting performance as the town’s ‘creep,’ and even that feels wasted (up until a point) in this whole affair.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Video provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Deadly Games (1982) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.