Holy shit, this fucking movie.
Have you ever started watching a movie and realized that it was exactly what you needed, when you needed it and then started delivering even more of what you wanted?
Life’s never that good but for some reason, Death Game — also known by the even better title The Seducers — did that for me. It’s a blast of seventies sleaze that somehow doesn’t forget to give all the power to its female leads and instead gives them free agency to absolutely decimate a man foolish enough to give in to their fantasy power play.
In short, sometimes the worst thing you can get is everything you ever dreamed about.
California real-estate financier Pete Traynor started making movies in the early 70s in the same way that people used to finance strip malls. That might seem strange — perhaps unethical — but whatever got this movie in my hands, I endorse it.
He chose this as his first film after founding Centaur Films with director-producer Mark Lester to produce Steel Arena and Truck Stop Women. He only directed one other movie, the also deranged Evil Town which rose from the ashes of another film Dr. Shagetz and also one that was remade by its co-director Mardi Rustam as the even more delightful Evils of the Night.
It was a smart and contained idea for a film, as it mostly takes place inside a large Los Angeles home. That was the plan — shoot for a few weeks in 1974 and release it the next summer. It just took a few years to come out thanks to disputes between Traynor and the cast. And then there was that whole federal investigation into the way that it was financed.
The script — originally called Mrs. Manning’s Weekend — came from Jo Heims, who wrote Play Misty for Me and the story for Dirty Harry, which she received no credit for. She also adapted the screenplay for the Patty Duke movie You’ll Like My Mother and wrote two great TV movies, the John Llewellyn Moxey-directed Nightmare in Badham County and Gordon Hessler’s Secrets of Three Hungry Wives. Sadly, she died from breast cancer at the way too young age of 48 in 1978.
Another film that Heims wrote for Eastwood was 1973’s Breezy, a movie that he only acted in instead of starring, as he felt he was too young for the role that was played by William Holden. As for the much younger female lead, Eastwood had intended for that part to go to Jo Ann Harris, but Heims felt she was wrong for the part. Instead, she suggested her friend Sondra Locke, even though Locke was twelve years older than the character. This would be the first time Locke would meet Eastwood and would end up spending much of the 70s and 80s together.
There isn’t enough room to get into here as to the relationship between Eastwood and Locke, but it really has colored the way that I view him. Sometimes, we can separate the art from the artist, but when an artist goes out of his way to ruin another artist’s career and life, well…it’s difficult to ever respect them.
Back to Death Game.
Kay Lenz ultimately played the lead in Breezy, as she was young enough for the part, even if Locke always played younger than she really was. So when Locke became interested in this film — she’d never played a bad girl before — the fact that she was twice the age of the character in the script wasn’t a big deal.
The other part of the film’s seductive duo was to be played by Colleen Camp, who had only done TV roles and commercials. As for the man they destroy, George Manning, Al Lettieri (The Godfather, The Don Is Dead) was to star before Seymour Cassel came on board.
Cassel was mainly known for his roles in the films of John Cassavetes, as well as numerous other independent films. Perhaps less known is the fact that he gave a young Saul Hudson the name the world knows him as — Slash.
The actual shoot for the film was, charitably, chaos.
The original script kept getting humor and exploitation added to it, while Locke claimed that Traynor really had no idea what he wanted the movie to be or what he was doing, often only directing the actresses to break things. Locke and Cassel then basically took over their roles and began directing themselves and Camp.
Tensions flared, as during one scene where the girl dumped food repeatedly on him, Cassel nearly hit Traynor and refused to loop any of his dialogue. David Worth, the film’s cinematographer, at least was able to work with everyone — he wasn’t the first person hired for the role, as his predecessor was fired — but he was able to give the film its unique look in the face of all this madness (and he’s the one who looped Cassel’s voice). He went on to direct Poor Pretty Eddie, Kickboxer and Warrior of the Lost World, as well as run camera on The Jesus Trip and work as the director of photography on Remo Williams, Innerspace and Never Too Young to Die.
Worth also stuck it out as the film went through a messy post-production, as it was held up due to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigating Traynor’s financing. After that was settled, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gave Traynor $100,000 to finish editing the film, working with Worth 15 hours a day, seven days a week.
And then, well, it played theaters and kind of went away. It earned the kind of reviews that you expect Leonard Maltin to give good trash, who said it was an “unpleasant (and ultimately ludicrous) film about two maniac lesbians who — for no apparent reason — tease, titillate, and torture a man in his own house.”
But it found an audience.
I mean, it found me.
Any movie that starts with the “based on a true story” always gets me just right.
George Manning (Kassel) has just left home for work, getting a weekend alone as his wife has an emergency to attend to. That night, while alone in his large house, a thunderstorm rages outside and he hears a knock on the door. It’s Jackson (Locke) and Donna (Camp), two girls who can’t find the party they were supposed to attend and simply need to use the phone.
Often, it’s one decision that changes a life. This would be one of those.
The three chat while waiting for a car to pick up the girls, but that conversation leads to George’s sauna and a threesome that’s shot in near acid trip style, giving George that male power fantasy that nearly every post-sexual revolution American male has had: sex with two young blondes.
The problem with fantasy is that it’s not something that we ever work through. For most men, the fantasy ends with ejaculation. There’s not the emotional side or the way that your life is changed once you step outside your marriage. No one fantasizes about guilt. Or wonders what happens when two young women simply won’t leave your house and start accusing you of statutory rape and threatening to ruin everything that is your life.
It’s a powerful journey for a movie to make, much less one made nearly fifty years ago. And it pushes that story further and further. And while of all the versions of this story — it’s been filmed four other times — Kassel’s take is the most innocent, the moment he steps from reality to fantasy is as if to give himself over to what is assuredly deadlier than the male.
My only gripe is that I wish the film ended with the girls laughing and running away. What occurs feels too much like a square up real, too much like a square up reel when we can simply accept that their power has won and that they are alive and seeking someone else foolish enough to make that mistake. It’s the one thing that Eli Roth gets right in his shiny and way too clean remake.
Death Game is a strange movie that was forged from a chaotic production, the pressures of which one assumes shaped it and molded it into something unique, a film that I’m still thinking about days after I watched it despite the sensory overload that I put myself through on a daily basis.
In short, you need to see this.
You can buy it for yourself from Grindhouse Releasing. It’s got a brand new 4K restoration created from the original camera negative, interviews with Colleen Camp and director Peter Traynor conducted by Eli Roth, plus interviews with Sondra Locke, producer Larry Spiegel, cinematographer/editor David Worth and screenwriter Michael Ronald Ross. Then you get two sets of commentary with Camp and Roth as well as Spiegel and Worth, plus still galleries, an embossed slipcover and a 24-page full-color booklet with rare photos and liner notes. It might even have a secret movie included! It’s currently sold out but keep an eye out for it, because this is one of the best releases of this year.