Color, 1984, 87 mins. 40 secs.
Directed by Michael Elliot
Starring Sally Kirkland, Lynn Banashek, Sean Masterson, Michael O’Leary, Teal Roberts, Spice Williams-Crosby, Melissa Prophet, Angela Bennett, Nicholas Love
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Since the nostalgia boom for 1980s slasher movies took hold earlier in the '00s, significant cult followings have formed around even the cheapest regional productions as long as they showed even a sliver of personality, Fatal Gamesingenuity, or adorable incompetence. Shot in L.A. under the title The Killing Touch and Fatal Gamesbarely given a theatrical release by short-lived Impact Films, Fatal Games hit VHS from Media back in the mid-'80s but seemed to fall off the face of the earth for decades after that. However, gray market viewing options managed to build word of mouth for this eccentric, colorful slasher romp designed around a bunch of young Olympic hopefuls, complete with a wild climactic twist that feels even more transgressive today (and aligns it with another, much more loved summer camp slasher from the previous year). Finally fans got their reward at the end of 2023 when Vinegar Syndrome released it on Blu-ray in limited slipcover and standard editions, with a slew of extras explaining how this singularly strange stalk-and-slasher came into existence.

Things start out on a high note with one of the best pop anthem slasher songs this side of Graduation Day, "Take It All the Way," improbably co-written by Body Double's Deborah Shelton and her then-husband, Shuki Levy (Inspector Gadget, It's Punky Brewster). Of course that's set over a montage of our athletes in training at the Falcon Academy of Athletics in Massachusetts. From swimming to gymnastics to track and field, they've got it all and are ready to head to "the Nationals" when they're aren't busy hooking up with each other. Program head Dr. Jordine (played by director Michael Elliot) is dosing all of them with experimental steroids, which doesn't sit Fatal Gamescomfortably with his nurse/assistant Diane (future Oscar nominee Kirkland from Anna and Two Evil Eyes), but that's the least of their problems when someone in a dark Fatal Gamestracksuit starts killing off the kids one by one with a very sharp javelin. No swimming pool, field, or hallway is safe as the competitors seem to vanish, with gymnast Annie (Banashek) and runner Phil (Masterston) forced into detective duties to unmask the culprit.

Jammed with nudity and stalking scenes, this is about as pure, undiluted '80s slasher fare as you can get, with a slew of disposable potential victims and just enough soap opera distractions going on between them. The presence of Kirkland and Masterson (way before The Drew Carey Show) give it enough curiosity value, but there's also a turn by Spice Williams-Crosby (credited here under her non-stage name, Marceline Ann Williams) playing a coach way before her Star Trek and Buffy days. It's all good, trashy fun, and while this doesn't break any new genre ground at all, it throws in enough variations on javelin murders to keep you entertained and has one of the funniest killer reveals this side of Eyeball.

The Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray is going to be a treat for anyone who pined to have this one back in circulation, featuring a 4K scan from what's cited as a 35mm dupe negative (with a dual English and French-language main title card). Obviously this is a big step up from the ancient VHS editions, though keep your expectations in check as this looks very much like a print with limited detail and somewhat clogged-up night scenes. This is the best it'll ever look though, and hats off for getting it Fatal Gamesback out to the public. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track sounds perfectly fine what it is, with optional English SDH subtitles provided. The always reliable team of Bill Ackerman and Amanda Reyes is back with another champ of a commentary, this time recorded in Fatal GamesRedondo Beach (mere feet away from where this review was written) at the former location Aviation High School where this was shot. They're well-versed as always in every background aspect you could want to know including the Olympics around the same time, the bizarre co-writing participation of Rafael Buñuel (son of Luis), and various connections throughout '80s horror and teen movies (as well as Psycho). In "The Winning Touch" (7m58s), Tracie Hellberg (formerly Lynn Banashek) talks about her own gymnastics background, her approach to her "innocent, naive" character, the use of Linnea Quigley as her nude massage body double, and lots of other memories. In "Going for Gold" (10m45s), Masterson recalls the audition and casting process, his rapport with co-writer and actor Chris Mankiewicz, the attempts to tie into both the Olympics in real life and Friday the 13th, and the lack of any horror affinity with Elliot. In "Death on the Staircase" (9m30s), actor Michael O’Leary looks back with amusement at his impression that he had to learn parallel bars for his role, some scenes likely shot to pad out the running time, and the real-life source of a very eerie sound effect. "A Great Day at the Office" (8m57s) features actress Melissa Prophet explaining how she came on because of Mankiewicz and got to use her dancing experience as part of her character's physicality. Then it's Williams-Crosby's turn in "It’s the Taking Part That Counts" (6m8s), talking about her movie into acting after a music career with her twin sister, her hiring for this film, the angle she took on her character as a lesbian coach, and the step this film became in her acting path. Finally in "Cutting Gym Class" (8m38s), editor/associate producer Jonathon Braun, ACE goes into his UCLA schooling, his initial plans to go into cinematography, his friendship with the director, and getting to jump into this film after Dawn of the Mummy. Also included are a promotional and nudity-heavy production photo gallery (4m57s), the original The Killing Touch main title card, and a theatrical trailer.

Reviewed on March 1, 2024