“Now it’s a game again, with winners and losers.”
As someone who also writes a monthly column on board games for Unwinnable, it was the “masked maniac with a penchant for a monster-themed board game” logline that initially made me want to tackle Deadly Games, a lethargic 1982 slasher that I had never actually even heard of before Arrow announced the Blu.
Imagine my surprise, then, when, after the movie, I cracked open the booklet that accompanies the disc and, in an essay by Amanda Reyes, learned that Deadly Games was financed by a production company originally based out of Wichita, Kansas – the closest “big city” to my hometown, and therefore the place where I spent most of my formative teen years.
Because of these Wichita origins, Reyes makes the case that Deadly Games should be considered a “Midwestern Gothic,” notwithstanding that it was pretty obviously shot in California. I also learned about a movie I’m going to have to track down, a 1980 flick called The Attic that is essentially a sequel to Curtis Harrington’s 1973 thriller The Killing Kind.
The Attic stars Carrie Snodgrass and Ray Milland, and the VHS cover has one of those cymbal-banging toy monkeys with blood dripping from its mouth. But the real reason that I need to see it is that it, apparently, was actually filmed in Wichita, rather than just financed from there. But we’re not here to discuss that. We’re here for Deadly Games.
Technically a slasher, Deadly Games is almost certainly one of the sleepiest of its breed. Sure, there’s a ski-mask wearing killer (who also dons giallo-esque black gloves; this was the very beginning of the slasher’s golden age, after all, and Deadly Games was actually filmed even a few years earlier) who is going around town, knocking off women. But the plot is only tangentially interested in him at any given moment.
For most of its running time, Deadly Games is more preoccupied with the dead-end lives (and usually equally dead-end loves) of its various characters, a gossipy clique orbiting a blue-collar town where pretty much everyone is sleeping with pretty much everyone else and everybody knows it.
These copious infidelities do more than provide opportunities for gratuitous nudity – or to get characters alone. They showcase the quiet desperation of all of these intersecting lives, even before the killer starts picking them off. Indeed, that same boredom and ennui proves to be the initial instigating force behind the murders, once their motive is finally revealed.
This sleepy, soapy quality gives Deadly Games a not-especially-stellar reputation, among those who know of it at all – at least, if the scores on Letterboxd are any indication. Here are snippets from a handful of reviews, pulled from various horror and movie websites online: “A definite ugly sister in the eighties vault, beyond the initial moments there’s little horror to grasp onto, and what is there is hardly worth the effort.”
Still too generous? There’s always Horror News, which called it a “boring, silly mess of a film,” and warned, “Unless you’re looking for a ‘horror’ movie with no suspense, horrible death scenes, a corny love triangle, a mystery so easy to deduce most people will figure it out within minutes and an ending that will literally make you face palm then avoid this movie like the plague.”
And yet, I kind of loved it. It’s tough to put my finger on just why, exactly. Sure, Jo Ann Harris (who later did a wide array of voices on The Simpsons) is dynamite as our chatty final girl, and it’s also got turns from folks like Steve Railsback, Dick Butkus, and even one scene with June Lockhart, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a vibe in this movie that is less eerie than sad, and I love the look of it throughout.
Deadly Games is the type of film that was probably almost impossible to see on VHS or a washed-out TV, but restored on Blu-ray the film grain brings it to life, and the (numerous) night shots are rendered atmospheric and even kind of beautiful, rather than underlit. It isn’t a showy kind of look, especially compared to many of the giallos that would have been its contemporaries, but I really dug it anyway, from the shots of people wandering around their houses in the dark to the old theater to the amazing cemetery sequence that features an explicit nod to Frankenstein and the other Universal monsters.
Speaking of those old monsters, which we’ll do more in a minute, we need to discuss that antique movie theater a little further. It sits at the heart of the film in more ways than one, and many of the most pivotal moments take place within its walls. It is operated by Billy (Steve Railsback), one of the possible suspects for the identity of our killer, and there he and Roger, the other most likely suspect, watch old monster movies, including several minutes of The Monster Walks, a 1932 old dark house cheapie about a killer ape.
That would probably be enough to make me love this movie, all by itself, but there’s more. Roger and Billy also play a game, the board game from which the film gets its gimmick and its title. The game board looks homemade and, watching the movie today, feels like an early precursor to the licensed Universal monster board game Horrified, which came out in 2019. As near as we can make out, it plays like you might expect a late-‘70s/early-‘80s board game to play, but the theming is all classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, the mummy, and so on.
As someone who writes a lot about – and for – games, the oddest thing about this one (which is featured prominently not only in the film itself but in its advertising) is that it appears to be played with d20s. Never mind that the dice shown in the film’s poster and the new artwork for the Arrow Blu are the standard pipped d6s you’d expect.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.