Color, 1977, 89 mins. 42 secs.
Directed by Peter S. Traynor
Starring Sonda Locke, Colleen Camp, Seymour Cassel
Grindhouse Releasing (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
/ WS (2.35:1) (16:9), VCI (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
A cinematic battle of the sexes unlike any other, Death Game is a prime example of the weird cross-pollination going on between scuzzy exploitation and indie American art films in the '70s. Mixing quirky satirical humor, dark perversity, and plunges into all-out paranoid madness, it's a film with many cinematic predecessors (particularly Kitten with a Whip, Lady in a Cage, and a certain grindhouse film we'll get to shortly), but the way it unspools is wholly unique and unforgettable with a shockingly overqualified cast really vaulting this one up to the next level. The sole completed directorial credit for Peter S. Traynor, the film itself was a highly troubled production (largely due to its initial director of photography being booted off right when shooting was starting), but since then it's amassed a decent cult following due to its wild tonal shifts, delirious atmosphere, and hilarious left-field closing moments.
Purportedly based on a "true story," our sordid tale involves a very unpleasant weekend in San Francisco for married businessman George Manning (Cassel) after his wife has to leave for a few days, just in time for his fortieth birthday. His first rainy night alone is interrupted by the arrival of two young women, Agatha (Locke) and Donna (Camp), who claim to have gotten the wrong address for a party. He invites them in to find some shelter and ends up accepting their offer for a steamy threesome in the tub, but things go south very quickly when the new visitors refuse to leave the next morning. Soon he's being heckled, tormented, held against his will, and blackmailed with threats of statutory rape and eventual murder by the time Monday morning rolls around. With his house and personal life turning into a complete disaster, he realizes he has no idea how far these invaders are really willing to go.
From its deliberately cloying main title song to its deranged highlights like Locke and Camp going to town with Mrs. Manning's makeup, Death Game is a film that definitely makes an impression once you've seen it. Held up long after shooting completed and barely given a theatrical release, the film has suffered for ages due to a slew of abysmal home video releases that chopped the scope framing to shreds and looked so murky you couldn't even see the original color schemes. Even in this highly compromised form, it became a word of mouth favorite about cult movie collectors and eventually got a much more high profile remake in 2015 as Eli Roth's Knock Knock, which not only starred Keanu Reeves and Ana de Armas but featured a cameo by Camp as well. (She and Locke also served as executive producers, presumably with much more professional behavior than they exhibited here!) Seen today, it's a wild home invasion chamber piece for its three stars who may not have had the smoothest time behind the camera (with Cassel walking off early and ending up being dubbed during post-production), but the end product definitely speaks for itself.
Anyone who suffered through the cruddy VHS releases of this film (with one retitled The Seducers) or the very disappointing DVD from VCI will be utterly stunned by the 2022 double-disc Blu-ray set from Grindhouse Releasing, which has been one of the longest-gestating titles in the company's history. The restoration of the original scope framing is a really pleasant shock, giving the film an expansive, slick look you never would've guessed before and bringing out lots of stylish touches in the lighting (especially that eerie green) that was utterly camouflaged before. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track is also far better than before, no longer hissy or shrill, and optional English SDH subtitles are included. The film also comes with two audio commentaries, the first with Camp and Roth clearly having a good time as they cover her career around the same time as Smile, the original script as Mrs. Manning's Weekend, the initial development at Clint Eastwood's Malpaso (which had nothing to do with Locke), the years-long delay before the theatrical release, and much more. The level of detail in her recall about the production is pretty astonishing here and much better than the vast majority of other actor tracks. The second commentary with producer Larry Spiegel and cinematographer-editor David Worth, which is obviously more devoted to the technical side as they go into blocking, locations, the unorthodox editing choices, tonal challenges, and more. As tucked away on the first disc are the theatrical trailer (in a nice HD scan) and at least one Easter egg, a 1985 Traynor industrial short for the USC Medical Center, "Cast Care" (17m22s), featuring copious breakdancing, mime terror, and Ricardo Montalban narration. But that's not all! Unannounced on the packaging but very welcome here is the inclusion of a gorgeous new HD scan of 1973's Chris Warfield film Little Miss Innocence (72m9s), which came out on DVD back in 2015 from Vinegar Syndrome as a double feature with Teenage Seductress. It looks fantastic here, and since the film itself bears a striking narrative resemblance to Death Game in many respects, it's very appropriate to have as an unofficial double feature. Extra points for the cute animated menu on the first disc, too.
Disc two houses the remainder of the video extras starting with the feature-length "Ruthless: The Peter Traynor Story" (109m39s) with the director interviewed by Roth about his life and career, including his ventures outside filmmaking and some really colorful passages along the way. Then "Colleen Camp: In the Moment" (60m35s) reunites the actress with Roth for a cheerful overview of her early career as an actress and model, including stories from some of her lesser known films and touching on titles like Ebony Ivory and Jade and Game of Death. Now sadly no longer with us, Locke turns up for a telephone interview (14m42s) chatting with The Projection Booth podcast's Mike White about her dissatisfaction with her director and the drastic rewrites on the script, as well as the chaotic nature of the shoot and the camaraderie between the three leads. The complete unedited phone interview (44m7s) is also offered with a lot more about her background and career. "Game Changers" (44m49s) brings back Spiegel and Worth (and a real scene-stealing dog between them at the beginning) as they talk about their working process together, how they address disagreements, and their memories of the shoot not covered in the commentary. Much juicier is "A Tale of Two Scripts" (44m10s) with writer Michael Ronald Ross showing off the original 1971 script and the 1974 rewrite,
then chronicling the strange, twisty, and sometimes tortuous process of the story's birth and evolution in the wake of the Manson murders. Finally a section of galleries is split between 25 production stills, 25 shots of Traynor at work, 23 promotional material items, 9 VHS images, and 44 pieces of art showing the development of this release's new cover design. Of course, in true Grindhouse fashion you get a lot more Easter eggs here including a Lincoln-Mercury promo (5m25s) with Laurence Olivier narrating "The Plan" of Buster Keaton, another USC Medical Center short by Traynor (11m4s) with Montalban explaining why stitches are necessary (complete with more miming), a brief 1m40s anecdote about Ross' discovery of Knock Knock, and a sample of Camp's provocative commercial modeling work. Finally you get a batch of trailers for Hollywood 90028, Scum of the Earth, Love Is Deep Inside, Ice House, Family Enforcer, Cannibal Holocaust, Massacre Mafia Style, Gone with the Pope, Pieces, The Beyond, Cat in the Brain, An American Hippie in Israel, Corruption, The Swimmer, The Big Gundown, I Drink Your Blood, Captive Female, The Tough Ones, and Impulse, plus a hidden one for Passion Pit. The package also comes with a very extensive essay by David Szulkin, "Death Game, Replayed," a remarkable piece of scholarship unto itself that uncovers even more about the film's history and side notes like its little-seen Spanish remake and the conflicting accounts from the set over the years. Don't overlook it! As of this writing, the release is limited to a 2,000-unit limited edition sold directly by the label with an embossed keyring (and which sold out in record time), but a standard retail edition will presumably be forthcoming very shortly.
Grindhouse Releasing (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on March 18, 2022.