Deadly Games (1980) Deadly Games / The Eliminator / Who Fell Asleep? (1980/1982) **½

     In the late 1970’s, the hottest new concept in American television was the prime-time soap opera. Once “Dallas” and “Dynasty” proved that hyper-serialized relationship melodramas with circuitous plots and a feverish emotional pitch could compete with more “respectable” (which is to say, male-oriented) TV fare, provided the producers had a commensurate amount of money to spend, every wannabe showrunner in the business had a pilot in the same vein ready to shoot. Those shows had legs, too. Although none of them ever came close to matching the uncanny longevity of their daytime counterparts (“Days of Our Lives” will still be shooting new episodes at the heat death of the universe), a successful prime-time soap could run for ten or fifteen years. One of those marathoners was a show called “Knots Landing,” about a suburban LA cul-de-sac whose innocuous appearance concealed a hotbed of infidelity and betrayal among the affluent married-but-childless set. My tastes are such that “Knots Landing” was never even a blip on my radar despite fourteen years on the air, and I’m sure I would never have caught on to its existence if left to my own devices. So once again, I’m indebted to Juniper for my ability to see what’s really going on in a movie that would otherwise have been totally opaque and baffling to me. For while Deadly Games seems an inexplicable oddity within the context of other early-80’s slasher films, everything that makes it so weird snaps into place when you recognize it as the picture that dares to ask, “What if one of the residents of Knots Landing was a giallo killer?”

     It’s late at night in some rich-fuck So-Cal canyon community, and Linda Lawrence (Alexandra Morgan, from Spellbinder and The First Nudie Musical, who turned up in a guest role on “Knots Landing” during the two years that it took Deadly Games to find a distributor) has the strangest feeling she’s being watched. So Linda does what any sensible 30-ish single woman, living alone on secluded property, would do under the circumstances. She takes off her clothes, goes outside, and poses in front of her back door while feeling her tits. Then the phone rings. Linda runs inside to answer it, but there’s no sound on the other end of the line except labored breathing. At this point, Linda belatedly has the reaction that most of us do upon feeling surreptitiously watched, and slams the handset down. The telephone rings again almost immediately, but this time the caller is someone she knows. They chat amiably for a few minutes, after which Linda gets herself ready for bed. Alas for her, that person she felt watching her before has by now reached the house, and she left the garage door open when she came home this evening. When Linda suddenly remembers about the garage and gets up to close it, the prowler is lying in wait for her. A short chase around and through the house ends with Linda taking a header off her back deck, and breaking her neck on the sharply sloping canyon wall below. Cut to a second, younger woman (Jo Ann Harris, from Act of Vengeance and The Beguiled) receiving a late-night phone call of her own, and growing very somber afterwards.

     That second woman turns out to be Linda’s sister, Clarissa— but call her “Keegan.” She’s a writer on the periphery of the journalism industry, so she isn’t technically lying when she barges into the middle of the crime-scene investigation at Linda’s house a day or two later, claiming to be a reporter. Given the traditional animosity between cops and reporters, however, Keegan would probably have done better to lead with her relationship to the deceased. At the very least, investigating detective Roger Lane (Sam Groom, from Deadly Eyes and Time Travelers) grows markedly less combative with her once she mentions that, too. Lane doesn’t know what to tell her about her sister’s death. It could just have been an unlucky fall. Lane hasn’t ruled out suicide, however, nor has he ruled out foul play; there’s evidence of a second, unidentified person having been in the house with Linda last night. Now that she knows there’s a mystery afoot, Keegan decides to stay in town until it’s resolved, setting up in her sister’s place as soon as the police have finished scrutinizing it.

     Later that day, at a little diner, Keegan stumbles into an inadvertent high school reunion. The waitress is an old friend, Mary Adams (Denise Galik, of Don’t Answer the Phone and Humanoids from the Deep, another “Knots Landing” guest player), and the de facto leader of the three women sitting two booths over from Keegan is her old enemy, Susan “Sooty” Thomas (Jere Rae Mansfield), then and apparently still the Queen Bitch of whichever canyon this is supposed to be. No, wait— small correction: Sooty Thomas is now Sooty Lane, meaning that she’s married to that cop Keegan met at Linda’s house. The women sitting with Sooty (and being grudgingly tolerated by her) are Chris Howlett (Christine L. Tudor) and Carol Bailey (Robin Hoff), about whom there is little to be observed beyond the latter’s terminal squareness. That meeting marks Keegan’s entrée into the social life of her sister’s community, which remains as baroquely treacherous as it was when the Lawrence girls were teenagers. Somewhat surprisingly, her number-one source for actionable gossip isn’t any of the other women, but rather Mary’s contentedly cuckolded husband, faded local football hero Joe Adams (Dick Butkus, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Spontaneous Combustion). He gives her the quick rundown on who’s fucking whom behind whose back (short version: everyone, everyone, and everyone) that will serve as the first layer of clues when the murders begin to multiply.

     Joe’s scorecard throws into relief one of the strangest things about Deadly Games: despite all that marital intrigue, with its attendant impenetrable thicket of potential murder motives, there are really only two credible suspects here. One of them is Roger Lane, who isn’t at all the sort of person one would ideally like to have enforcing the law. If Roger has any principles, it’s difficult to imagine what they might be, and if he’s taking any steps to catch Linda’s killer, it’s just as difficult to discern them. He also clearly hates Sooty more than anybody, but since she’s the one with the money, it would be terribly inconvenient for him to divorce her. Maybe he likes to blow off steam once in a while by doing to other women what he wishes he had the nerve to do to his wife? Plus, Lane was in Vietnam, and you know what that means in a movie from the early 80’s. Mind you, the latter rule suggests that we should also be looking closely at Roger’s best friend, Billy Owens (Steve Railsback, of Alligator II: The Mutation and Turkey Shoot). Billy bears the scars of war much more visibly than Roger does— both literally and figuratively. He was badly wounded in action, and there isn’t a piece of his body or mind that has worked quite right since. At first glance, that might seem disqualifying for a murder suspect, but one of the killer’s most distinctive traits is his thick and rasping breath— as if the stalking and slaying of unsuspecting young women entailed an unaccustomed degree of physical exertion. Furthermore, Billy’s occupation and hobbies alike are flapping red flags in a movie like this one. He runs the neighborhood revival theater, where he never turns on a light if he can avoid it, and which specializes in schlocky horror fare like Blood of Dracula’s Castle and The Monster Walks. And whenever he and Roger get together, they spend at least some of their time playing a complicated board game that looks like a cross between Dungeon! and Creature Castle. (It’s hard to tell in my nth-generation VHS dupe, but it looks to me like the die controlling movement in the game might even be a 20-sider!)

     So you can see what I mean about both of these guys having “I did it” written all over them, right? Well, get ready for this flick’s weirdest feature of all. Not only does Roger become Keegan’s love interest of record despite all that, but the romantic montage (complete with treacly femme-vocal pop ballad) establishing their courtship, when taken strictly at face value, looks for all the world like it’s setting her up in an M-F-M ménage-a-trois with both him and Billy! Billy takes a seat in the theater nearby after cuing up the final reel of The Monster Walks for them, and Keegan bids him to come sit next to her on the opposite side from Roger. He accompanies the couple on their picnic in the park, and on a variety of other excursions to scenic spots in the canyon. Keegan joins Billy and Roger in playing their weird board game. And when the final chorus of “Lost in Love Again” warbles its way to silence, Keegan muses to Roger about how much she enjoys spending time with Billy. By all the storytelling conventions of cinematic romance, the only plausible interpretation is that Keegan has a whole lot of Chinese finger cuffs in her future. And when you get right down to it, the jet-black ending to which Deadly Games comes makes the most sense if we assume that the relationships among Keegan, Roger, and Billy really are fully triangular.

     I have no idea what could have possessed writer-director Scott Mansfield to approach Deadly Games as The Knots Landing Murders, but I can tell you what I find appealing about the idea. First and obviously, it’s screwy. It’s a premise that demands explanation even as it defies it, and I’ve never seen anything very much like it before. That’s worth two or three times as much coming from a slasher movie, too, given how many of the things verge recklessly on complete interchangeability. But beyond that, the soap opera aspect of Deadly Games requires it to invest heavily in something that most slasher films all but ignore, the interior lives of all the people whom we’re about to watch die. I went into this movie freshly sensitized to that issue by an ill-advised back-to-back viewing of Halloween and Halloween II. As in Halloween, nobody in Deadly Games warrants dismissal as Expendable Meat. We get to spend enough time with all of them to form some picture of who they are in their daily lives, when they aren’t fleeing from knife-swinging lunatics. I’m not saying that Keegan or the canyon-dwellers are likeable, necessarily, or even particularly interesting for the most part— there’s no need to set the bar even that high. The point is that they register as people, and not simply as whatever single characteristic the filmmakers have chosen to distinguish them from each other. It’s a rare slasher movie indeed that offers up a characterization as layered as “wistful ex-jock who knows he peaked at seventeen, who so loves his wife and so values her happiness that he doesn’t mind her cheating on him with younger, less washed-up guys.” And so while it may be frustrating how little carnage there is to be had from Deadly Games, the relative pittance we do get ends up meaning a lot more. When the killer strikes in this movie, it’s natural to relate to the victim as a life being snuffed out prematurely instead of just a body being creatively disassembled.



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