Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp, and Seymour Cassel in 1977's "Death Game."

Death Game November 11, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Peter S. Traynor

STARRING

Sondra Locke
Seymour Cassel
Colleen Camp

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1977

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 31 Mins.

D

azed and sopping wet after wandering in the storm outside for God knows how long, two young women show up at your door asking if they could use your phone. They just need to call someone to get them the ride to the party they’d gotten lost trying to find. Would you let them in and lend them a hand? George (Seymour Cassel), the lead of Death Game (1977), responds how most would: with a sympathetic

yes. 

 

George doesn’t know that Death Game is the kind of movie where yeses only ever lead to oh nos. Extending his hospitality becomes one of the worst, if not the worst, decisions he’s ever made. Home alone while his wife tends to an out-of-town family emergency involving one of their kids, the 40-year-old family man gives in when the women, Donna and Jackson (Colleen Camp and Sondra Locke), seduce him in his hot tub. Then he becomes what amounts to a captor when the pair decide not only that they aren’t going to leave but that they’re going to turn this hapless middle-aged guy, whom they eventually literally tie up, into an object to be toyed with. 
   

In the course of Death Game, which was shot in 1974 but released a few years later because of distribution problems, the women become increasingly unbalanced. They gleefully trash the house; more and more, they indulge in violence, coming to a head when a food-delivery man unfortunately stops by at the height of their mania. Death Game plays out like Daisies (1966) by way of Funny Games (1997), the former’s feminine chaos fusing with the latter’s nerve-wracking home-invasion cruelty. It’s a horror movie that, in Fatal Attraction (1987) fashion, seems to intend to craft a morality tale with the materials of a male fantasy gone awry. (When looking at it in more symbolic terms — of women forcefully challenging a patriarchal upper-hand, with the ending sealing in the ultimate difficulty of toppling it completely — it gets a little more interesting.)
 

Death Game is a compelling, nasty piece of work; its knows-what-it’s-doing effectiveness makes its difficulty to make a surprise. Stories have it that the production was a catastrophe of differing creative visions and on-the-set tiffs between the actors and first-time director Peter S. Traynor. Those creative agonies might not have seemed worth it when the movie’s delayed release earned so-so box office and reviews, but eventually the film drew a generally appreciative following. Even Camp and Locke — the latter of whom being especially vocal about not thinking of the movie as anything special — came around, co-producing Eli Roth’s 2015 remake, Knock Knock. Supposedly that movie, which I haven’t seen, takes a campier approach. Death Game has the good sense to recognize the absurdity of its conceit without spoiling its scariness by overdoing it. B+