Director Peter S. Traynor's Death Game is getting a theatrical run thanks to the folks at Grindhouse Releasing. This 70's grindhouse flick was remade back in 2015 as Knock, Knock by Eli Roth, starring Keanu Reeves. It is great to finally see the original, restored, and looking better than ever.
The key difference is between the versions is star Seymour Cassel. Unlike Reeves, who looks like he wouldn't have trouble getting women to sleep with him, Cassel looks like a regular married dad. The premise is simple, George Manning (Cassel) is visited by two young women (Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp, on a dark and rainy night while his wife and son are out of town. They seek help and George takes them in. Soon, however, they begin to seduce George. After sleeping with them George realizes his mistake and tries to get them to leave. They refuse and soon begin to play a deadly game with him, torturing him. George could just call the cops but the girls are minors and he knows he would go to jail for his actions.
Central to the story is the notion that George is in over his head. Cassel plays this aspect with a relatable regret. While this may be an exploitation film with plenty of nudity, sex and sadism, it also has a cautionary theme underneath. George thinks he is the luckiest man alive when being seduced but then has to live with the consequences of his actions. The two young girls make sure that he pays for rejecting them, at least that is how they take him asking them to leave.
Fantasy scenarios turned into nightmares can be morally heavy and Death Game's third act is pretty punishing. Camp and Locke are riveting as two hyper-psychopaths who delight in George's misery. The film shows it is of its time in a few ways. It is implied one of the girls was molested by her father and the other girl had an absent father. Boiling down their violent actions to "daddy issues" is reductive. However, the film is carried by its three performances. Everyone here is committed to the madness as it unfolds. Colleen Camp is particularly skilled at switching from sweet to sadistic. Sheri Moon Zombie is no doubt a fan of her performance.
Despite having some elements that don't age particularly well, Death Game's influence is clear. Eli Roth is obviously a fan but one can also feel the film's influence on Adrian Lyne and the sex-filled thrillers of the 80s. The restoration here is fantastic. The film's giallo-influenced lighting is full of rich colors. The score is tonally off but it sounds clear and crisp. This is another fine release from Grindhouse Releasing. Check it out at The Majestic in Phoenix this week. It will likely be a long time before we get a chance to see this exploitation flick on the big screen.