If you ask a casual movie goer to list some classic horror films, a large majority of them will mention Halloween, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. One thing that these three films have in common is the fact that they fall into the ardently adored slasher sub-genre. You might even argue that films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play would fall into this category as well, and these would no doubt be included on the aforementioned list. Needless to say, slasher films have been slashing their way to our hearts for decades now, and those of us who have a notable predilection for them have gone through the realization at some point in our lives that there are countless forgotten gems, mostly from the 70’s and 80’s, collecting figurative dust and waiting for new generations of knife-wielding maniac fanatics to find them and give them the proper attention.
Luckily for us, film distributor Arrow Video is among the few who have made our hunt for these potentially lost flicks a lot easier over the years, and they present them in glorious 4K restoration to boot! Among the many spectacular titles presented at this year’s FrightFest, most of which we’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, is a 1982 slasher that some film geeks might remember and some have probably never heard of: Deadly Games. I personally fell into the latter group of geeks but was thrilled to check it out regardless of lacking any prior knowledge. I find that a lot of the directors of these almost-lost films very rarely continue to explore the genre, and this is certainly true about Scott Mansfield who, aside from a few shorts and a TV movie documentary, only ever directed one other feature film, a comedy that starred Linda Blair, of all people. But I digress. Having only one horror film under your belt makes it almost one of a kind. My curiosity was piqued even more.
Following the death of her sister Linda, Keegan Lawrence returns home to the small town that she left after high school. She runs into Roger Lane, a dispassionate police detective, while visiting her sister’s home. Roger reveals that all signs are leading to Linda having been murdered, and Keegan agrees that suicide didn’t make much sense. As the two begin to form a bond, Keegan proceeds to catch up with old friends and family, and is eventually reintroduced to Billy Owens, a lone wolf of sorts whose only real friend is none other than Roger. Billy was previously wounded by a hand grenade during the war and spends most of his time in the town’s grand old movie house. As probably expected by the viewer, more women begin to get murdered by a man dressed in black, using a ski cap with the eyes cut out to shield his visage. The women in town are then thrust into a sick game that only the black gloved killer knows the rules to.
I went into the film having only read an incredibly vague plot synopsis online; something along the lines of “a killer terrorizes women in a small town”. Brief and to the point, right? I took no issue with it and proceeded to press the play button, assuming I knew what was in store. And I was almost right; the film opens, as many of you may have guessed, with the murder of a ridiculously promiscuous woman. That woman, of course, is Linda, Keegan’s sister. The scene was a little off-putting for me personally, due to some peculiar dialogue from Linda that seemed awfully misplaced. But the film takes an unexpected turn once the sequence is over and we’re introduced to Keegan and Roger. It becomes a bit of a light drama, and I honestly got so invested in it that I would have forgotten it was a slasher had it not been for the second death scene that comes along to heighten the drama even more. I think the unexpected turn was most obvious during a football game where Roger and some friends decide to play while Keegan and some girlfriends watch. Some information about Billy is revealed in this scene, which plays up the mystery aspect of the story, so they don’t go full romantic comedy on us.
Until they do.
The football scene actually marks the moment that I really started to have fun with the movie. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable before, but I was surprised at how much I was starting to like these characters. You see, there are two kinds of slasher films, the kind where the characters are one dimensional and disposable for the sake of thrilling kills, and the kind where the characters have layers and you actually care whether they die or not. Deadly Games falls into the second of the two, even if some of the characters are more likable than others. I was reminded a bit of Carpenter’s original Halloween, where a good amount of the film is focused on Laurie and her friends just getting through their day. The horror elements are a lot more prevalent in Halloween, however, and is a masterpiece of a film, so I wouldn’t compare the two in any other regard. Deadly Games is perhaps more niche, and I imagine that it wasn’t as well-received because it didn’t provide the audience with the next Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.
As mentioned above, the killer in this film has a very simple design, one that emulates the killer from Paul Lynch’s Canadian slasher film Prom Night, which preceded Deadly Games by two years. I wonder if the film’s reception would have been any different had they gone with a more unique look for the killer; it wouldn’t add much to the story but the look they went with doesn’t take away from it. It’s a realistic approach, more in line with something a real serial killer would wear to hide their identity, so I’ll give the film credit for that. I am a sucker for creepy masks though, so I’ll have to save those bonus points for another flick. The kills themselves are few and far between; they’re only really used to move the story along, so unfortunately not a lot of creativity went into them. Suspense is used in favor of gore, which is not uncommon for a slasher, especially from this decade. The tension is only really amplified in the third act, which makes for a moderately satisfying crescendo that could have been even more satisfying had it not ended so abruptly. The final few frames of the finale were, I believe, abrupt on purpose, which I loved, but the lead up to them was too sudden, with Keegan conveniently ending up at the right place at the right time, and with the right tools.
So why is it that I ended up enjoying a film which lacks some of the main qualities that make slashers so enticing? I believe the answer to my question lies within the question itself! I found the unexpectedly digressive nature of the film to be incredibly endearing since I initially expected a much more sleazy flick based on the opening sequence. I swore it was going to lean into exploitation territory but it basically did the opposite! I did also find myself falling in love with the character of Keegan, played remarkably well by Jo Ann Harris, who I initially didn’t recognize until I looked into her filmography and realized that she played Carol in 1971’s The Beguiled, which I absolutely adore. Keegan’s wit and humor won me over completely, which made it easy to believe that Roger would too find interest in her so quickly. She shines especially bright in an odd scene that takes place in a movie theater; the same theater that Billy works at. Roger decides to take her on a movie date after business hours so they can have the auditorium all to themselves. Well, themselves and Billy, that is. She completely carries the scene and even manages to make Billy’s third wheel appearance less awkward!
A casual movie goer looking for the next Leatherface or Ghostface won’t find what they’re looking for here, and even horror fans might be turned off by the lack of violent kills and bloody set pieces, but Deadly Games most definitely has an audience: those who have an affinity for long lost feature films that are underappreciated and possibly misunderstood. One can argue that the director might not have known what he was doing with so many opposing tones and tropes but I would strongly disagree and assert that he knew exactly what he was doing and managed to blend everything together in a solidly cohesive way. Deadly Games is a surprisingly low-key slasher that will shock you in ways that you probably didn’t expect. Although the film will be streaming at this year’s digital FrightFest, it is not clear whether Arrow Video will end up releasing it on Blu-Ray in the near future. It would be a shame to keep the restoration away from home video, so I’d wager to say that an announcement will soon be in order. I would undoubtedly pick up a copy if so!