Well before Don’t Breathe, Hush, The Strangers, Funny Games, and so on, there was already a slew of home invasion kinds of movies–things like When A Stranger Calls, Straw Dogs, and the wildly overrated Last House On The Left. In the midst of all this came the much lesser known Death Game (1977) which is also well before Don’t Fuck With Cats. Trust me. It all makes sense.
This is one weeeeiiiirrrrd flick, and discussing it requires a megadose of spoilers.
First, there are six characters, but only half actually matter. We have husband and wife Karen and George Manning, housekeeper Mrs. Grossman, Donna, Jackson, and a delivery boy. We’ll get to the actors later.
So–here we are in 1975 San Francisco. Karen has to fly off on a family emergency leaving George on his own for a weekend. His first night alone, there’s a knock on the door. He answers to find two soaked young women, Donna and Jackson. Turns out they’re looking for a party and have gotten lost. They ask to use George’s phone, and he lets them stay and dry out, dry their hair and clothes (he gives them robes), and hang out until a friend comes to pick them up.
Well, before you know it they’ve ended up seducing him. Never saw that comin’ didja? What follows is an tedious, cringe-worthy three-way sex montage that goes on for far too painfully long and is underscored by some stereotypically porny “bow-chicka-wow-wow” riffs. The “friend” never shows up, so Donna and Jackson stay the night. In the morning, they make breakfast and start misbehaving like a couple of ill-mannered high schoolers.
Eventually George gets fed up and threatens to call the police. This is when Jackson reveals that they’re both underage. After much shrill yelling and argument, they finally decided that George can drop them off in the city. He does, stops for some groceries, and goes home only to find that his new friends are already back waiting for him. Never saw that comin’ didja?
What ensues is a night of torture, shrill laughter and shrieking, humiliation, a mock trial, an unconscious delivery boy drowned in a giant fish tank, and a cat that Donna launches through a closed window (this is surprisingly important it turns out). Reading back over this synopsis might tempt one to think, “I’d watch that.” This would be an unwise assumption. On one hand, it’s interesting that Donna and Jackson are the only ones with any agency in the movie. On the other hand, the entire proceeding comes off as disjointed, annoying, directionless, and downright silly.
The sad irony is that what’s most interesting about Death Game is who’s involved with it. Let’s start with the three main characters.
George Manning– A 70s porn-stached Seymour Cassell who’d go on to appear in a number of John Cassavetes and Wes Anderson films.
Donna– A very young Colleen Camp. If you wonder where you’ve seen her, it was probably some character part somewhere, such as Julie’s mom in Valley Girl.
Jackson– Sondra Locke in an unusually non-Eastwood production. That’s not entirely true as the screenplay is by frequent Eastwood collaborator Jo Helms.
But wait! There’s more.
Also involved in the writing was Don Bluth who brought us All Dogs Go To Heaven, Thumbelina, The Secret Of NIMH, The Land Before Time, and a bunch of other thankfully non-Disney animated features.
I’ve saved the best for last. The production designer was Jack Fisk which is not all that noteworthy. However, one of the set dressers was his wife–Sissy Spacek. Working alongside her was a very young Bill Paxton who started out as a set dresser at 18.
And there is even more irony to be had! At dawn, Jackson makes as if she’s about to take a cleaver to the hurt, trussed up George, then purposely misses. Inexplicably, she tells Donna, “It’s time to go,” and they leave. Remember that cat? Well, as Donna and Jackson skip across a street, they are mowed down by an oncoming van. On the side of the van are the letters SPCA, and the credits roll to the sound of barking dogs.
And there’s today’s lesson–Don’t Fuck With Cats. Told ya it’d all make sense.
13 (admittedly I was torn. It’s not an Unwatchable 1 because it’s not totally unwatchable. It’s not a Watch It Forget It 4 because I’ll certainly never be able to get it outta my head. It’s not a Fun Entertaining 8 cuz it’s not fun, Definitely Well Worth Seeing as a 10, a Damn Fine Bit Of Cinema at an 11, nor anywhere close to Perfect at a 12.5–this leaves me no choice but to make it Required Viewing. Cuz damn).
1 drowned delivery boy
1 defenestrated cat
Available in poor quality on YouTube