What do you get when you cross Steve Railsback (post Helter Skelter and pre Lifeforce) with a darker, 1970s version of Thirtysomething? You get Scott Mansfield’s Deadly Games. I have to call it a slasher because it has a masked killer and it came out in the sweet spot of slasher films from 1980 to 1984. I also owe it to any present and future fans of the films to give credit for being, I guess the term I have to use here is, “elevated.” I’ve written in the past about how much I hate that term. It puts a sometimes unreasonable expectation on the film, and it does a disservice to the same films of that ilk by assuming that they are substandard in comparison. Just my opinion, but really all “elevated” means here is that the film modified a few conventionalities.
Deadly Games is a bit of an outlier and a deep cut. The original poster art would have attracted any horror fan, but there are big differences here. Nobody is wearing a camp counselor shirt and hooking up at the house they’re babysitting at. These are adults. I’m guessing late twenties or early thirties just by using the metric that some served in Vietnam and that was around ten years before. Either way they all have career oriented jobs and most are married. None seem to be completely satisfied with adulthood or monogamy other than having more money, better cars, and hosting a pool party or two. I almost got a Big Chill vibe with the similarities of reconnecting due to the death of a friend or relative, and how we never end up where we think we’ll be when we’re 30.
Mansfield had a lot to say with the screenplay, making it a perfect choice for the deluxe Arrow treatment. Some of the elements need special features for elaboration. Depending on your generation, there is a Knots Landing or Melrose Place vibe here. Everyone comes to the party as a couple and then disappears with other people’s spouses into spare bedrooms and pool cabanas. What’s different here is that it isn’t one tragic accident that motivates the murders. It’s the quiet repression of expecting to be happy by following all the tropes of adulthood. Everyone seems to love their spouse in the everyday sense, but they don’t seem to feel guilty about trading them around.
Billy (Steve Railsback) is the only single guy, and he’s struggling with PTSD from Vietnam. He lives in a beautiful 1920s movie house and eeks out a living as the projectionist there. He sits on the sidelines with sunglasses and a cigarette when all the husbands play football as their wives watch. His only friend is Roger (Sam Groom). He’s the local plain clothes cop that’s married to Susan aka Sooty. I don’t know if she got the nickname because of a black heart, but either way, it’s a marriage of convenience that has almost run its course. He doesn’t hide being married when he’s courting Keegan (Jo Ann Harris), and she doesn’t seem to mind that he is or that she knows his wife in this very small town.
I’ll go with another moniker along the lines of “elevated.” Deadly Games could also be called the “thinking person’s horror film.” There’s a lot of suspicion of who the killer is but also a lot of detours. Roger and Billy play a horror movie-themed board game that the killer also plays. That lends to the likely possibility that Billy is the killer or is maybe a well place red herring. The character development is rich at the expense of the body count. We have more character development than kills and distractions that bring some characters above the suspicion of wearing the black ski mask.
Speaking of kills, I do have to give an honorable mention to a swimming pool death that clearly shows that killer isn’t relegated to just sharp objects. It is effective as the victim is left to her own devices to survive or die.
Arrow pulls out all the stops and the film looks beautiful with a stunning 2K restoration. Some top shelf features include:
- Commentary from the slasher podcast, The Hysteria Continues.
- My absolute favorite of all the special features. A new interview with the actress that played Sooty called “Sooty’s a Sh*t.” That’s a direct line lifted from the film. She elaborates on how she got the part despite nothing working out right, how she and director/writer Scott Mansfield fell in love and eventually married, and how passionate he was about keeping the integrity of his vision of the film. They also went on to form a company that releases independent films. Not only did it elaborate on the finer points of production, but ultimately demonstrated that this wasn’t a slasher film cash grab from anyone involved.
- Practical Magic – Special effects and stunt coordinator, John Eggett tells how he got from the “fake it ’til you make it” beginnings of his career to pulling of the impressive and haunting ending of the film.
- “The Games People Play” written by Amanda Reyes. She takes the Midwest aesthetic of horror films and looks closely at how the everyman dynamic of common life fuels extraordinary terror below a very normal façade.
- The original trailer and the original screenplay under the first working title of “Who Fell Asleep.”
- Reversible sleeve and newly commissioned artwork by artist Ralf Krause.
I can’t recommend Arrow’s release of Deadly Games enough. A curiosity amidst its contemporaries, the special features and restoration add to a deserved appreciation for a unique entry in 1980s horror.
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