Death Game: A Grindhouse Classic Returns to Theaters

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Death Game: A Grindhouse Classic Returns to Theaters


Can a movie be a grindhouse classic if only a bit makes it a kind of grindhouse or any movie theater? Filmed in 1974 and released, somehow, in 1977, “Death Game”, directed by Peter S. Traynor, was obscure enough not to appear in 1984. The Psychotronic Film Encyclopedia under its original or alternate title, “The Seducers”. Now restored by Grindhouse Releasing and touring theaters nationwide while also getting a double-disc Blu-ray debut, the film will be released at the Music Box Theater in Chicago on Wednesday, April 6, where I’m confident it will prove its mettle. to a contemporary audience.

For said audience, the best players in the film will not evoke “grindhouse” at all. They are Seymour Cassel, faithful actor and representative of John Cassavetes; Sondra Locke, set to become Clint Eastwood’s long-screen (and real-life) partner; and Colleen Camp, an actor and producer who memorably played an ill-fated Playboy Playmate in “Apocalypse Now.” But the scenario they stage is pure exploitation. Cassel plays George Manning, a complacent Bay Area bourgeois who doesn’t want to mess up on the weekends when his wife and kids are away from home. But one dark and stormy night, Jackson (Locke) and Donna (Camp) show up at his suburban doorstep, soaked and pretending to be lost. Like any mensch, he wants to help, so he lets them in, gives them use of the phone, and tries to help the rather giddy girls dry off. Stunned, they hit George’s hot tub and invite him in. A trio depicted in what appears to be a deliberately boring series of double and triple exposures unfolds. And soon things go awry, and Donna and Jackson hold George hostage in his own home.

If the script sounds familiar, that’s because Eli Roth adopted it to make “Knock Knock,” a larger, more comedic treatment of the material, in 2015. He even hired Camp and Locke as executive producers. Starring Keanu Reeves, Ana De Armas and Lorenza Izzo, it winks at audiences a bit more than Traynor’s photo. The original has that vaguely hypocritical aura that distinguished grindhouse fare of the time – both grim but also affecting to resent the conditions giving the grim material. And it’s pretty relentless, especially as Donna and Jackson increasingly abuse George. Not to mention the poor pizza maker.

David Szulkin of Grindhouse Releasing told me he’s been championing the film “since the mid-’80s, when Eli and I went to high school together in Newton, Massachusetts” – which is also, in this case, where the director from “Death Game” Traynor hails from. Szulkin kindly answered a few questions for me about the film’s origins, starting by telling me that “the film was a product of the tax shelter laws of the early 70s and was therefore shelved for years; the original theatrical run consisted of two drive-ins in upstate New York and a theater in Fresno. I asked him to elaborate a bit on that.

“In the early 1970s, the tax code allowed certain deductions for those who invested in film production. By participating in a film, investors obtained a lucrative cancellation. Thus, savvy accountants and producers were able to use this incentive profitably. It was all legal and created the opportunity to make a lot of low-budget independent films. Peter Traynor was an early adopter of this business model, very prolific and flamboyant about it. But he wasn’t the only one doing it. A similar situation in Canada in the 1970s spawned many tax shelter films, including, I believe, some of Cronenberg’s early feature films. Peter got a lot of his investors from the medical sector. In the 1960s, he was a star insurance salesman at Penn Mutual, their highest earner in company history; he had sold million-dollar insurance policies to wealthy doctors before going on his own to set up an investment company. Peter got a lot of those same doctors to invest in real estate as tax shelters and then in movies.

“My understanding of how the tax shelter program works is that if the movie was out, that was fine, and if it wasn’t, that was fine too. The investors were there for a tax deduction. That isn’t quite “The Producers”, but it’s borderline, in that many films have been set aside to show loss, in other cases the films have simply been set aside. sidelined for lack of interest; or they got released and didn’t do much business. It was all about delisting. You had to prove the movie was theatrically released to get the tax credit; but it could to be a very nominal ‘release’ in only a few rooms.”

Eastwood’s connection to the film has intrigued fans for years. Wikipedia has Jo Heims, the Eastwood collaborator who co-wrote the “Dirty Harry” story, and wrote “Play Misty for Me” (which certainly has thematic strains in common with “Death Game”) as as co-writer on Traynor’s film. “It’s absolutely, totally upside down. The original screenplay was written by Anthony Overman and Michael Ronald Ross in 1971. The first draft was called “Freak”. Don Devlin (Dean Devlin’s father and Jack Nicholson’s running pal) was going to produce it. Devlin suggested that the writers change the protagonist from an amoral, lonely womanizer named Parker (Michael Ross’s nod to Donald E. Westlake’s “Richard Stark” novels) to a married man, an “everybody “. The revision that followed, called ‘Mrs. Manning’s Weekend”, was chosen by Jo Heims’ husband, Bill Duffy, for the development of Malpaso, Eastwood’s production company. Heims rewrote “Weekend” to make it more “romantic” like his then-ongoing project with Clint, “Breezy.” Clint was going to lead with Nicholson to play. But when “Breezy” dropped, Eastwood lost interest.

It was through these connections that Locke became involved. (Although she hadn’t yet been romantically involved with Eastwood, she had auditioned for “Breezy” and Heims had sent her the script for “Weekend.”) Apparently the prospect of playing some sort of villainess appealed to her. . But she was initially not thrilled with the film. (Neither did Cassel, who balked at some of his scenes in which he had to be bombarded with food by Locke and Camp.)

“While Sondra viewed ‘Death Game’ as a disaster, she held David Worth’s cinematography in high regard,” says Szulkin. “So much so that she recommended David to Clint Eastwood, and David became the director of photography for ‘Bronco Billy’ and ‘Any Way You Can.’

“Over the years, both Sondra and Colleen became aware of the cult following that had been a forgotten film from the early days of their respective careers. After Grindhouse Releasing co-founder Sage Stallone died in 2012, we showed “Death Game” at a memorial for him at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood. Colleen hadn’t seen the movie in decades; she came to the screening of New Beverly…and saw how the crowd went wild (especially at the end). It was one of the events that planted a seed to remake the film, as Colleen mentions on the Blu-ray.

The Blu-ray extras are quite varied and include an interview with Locke (who died in 2018) in which she discusses the film and its issues in depth. It’s a great package. But seeing the film in a real movie theater (like the Music Box) is definitely an opportunity not to be overlooked.

Click here to get your Blu-ray copy of “Death Game” from Grindhouse Releasing.

Glenn Kenny
Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was Premiere magazine’s chief film critic for nearly half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our love of movies quiz here.


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