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  • Gabe Powers

Death Game Blu-ray


Grindhouse Releasing

Blu-ray Release: November 15, 2022 (website exclusive March 8, 2022)

Video: 2.39:1/1080p/Color

Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono

Subtitles: English SDH

Run Time: 89:42

Director: Peter S. Traynor


Family man George Manning (Seymour Cassel) sees his perfect life turned into a nightmare of sex and torture when he allows himself to be seduced by two nubile young strangers (Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp) who show up at his door on a rainy night. (From Grindhouse’s official synopsis)


In 2007, Eli Roth released Hostel: Part II and then proceeded to disappear from the directing scene, abruptly ending one of the most promising genre filmmaking careers since Peter Jackson. After a stint of producing and acting, he tried to return to directing with his ode to Italian cannibal cinema, The Green Inferno, but delays pushed back its no-festival release several years to 2015, at which point Roth’s fifth film, the little-hyped Knock Knock, would end up premiering as well. Despite the star power of Keanu Reeves, Knock Knock failed to drum up much hype and many critics (the few that actually covered it) overlooked the fact that it was a remake of an obscure, independently produced 1977 thriller from insurance salesman turned director Peter S. Traynor, starring Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp, both of whom acted as producers on Roth’s film (technically, it was the second remake after Manuel Esteba’s 1980 version, Vicious and Nude [Spanish: Viciosas al Desnudo]). Roth wasn’t a bad choice as remake director (at least not on paper – Knock Knock is pretty bad), but Death Game (aka: The Seducers) really feels like the prototype of a Rob Zombie joint, though, even in that context, it’s more demented than Zombie’s typically nostalgia-driven movies, because Traynor isn’t aping another deranged filmmaker – he is the deranged filmmaker.



Death Game is best described as delirious. It’s not as violent, sexually charged, or shocking as the most notorious exploitation and horror films, but every inch of its 90-minute runtime is crammed with outrageous characters, frenzied performances, frantic camera work, and garish lighting. The movie begins with a title card that informs us that it was “based on a true story” (à la Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and that it is meant to “remind us that fate allows no man to insulate himself against the evil which pervades our society.” This somber warning is immediately followed by quirky opening credits that run over a series of children’s crayon drawings. This whiplash tone sets the stage for a murky mix of made-for-TV soap operatics, softcore porn, arthouse lighting/editing techniques, and the ongoing nightmarish juxtaposition of physical abuse with The Ron Hicklin Singers’ electro-ragtime kiddie song, “Good Old Dad.” At its best, Death Game is one of those rare and fascinating exploitation titles that is so one-of-a-kind that you can’t be sure if the filmmakers were actual geniuses or ambitious amateurs that stumbled into something incredible. Watching the film for a second time (with a much better transfer to boot), I’m inclined to assume it’s a little of both.


Beyond its aesthetic insanity, shrill performances, and deep dark sense of humor, Death Game is an interesting and surprisingly thoughtful entry in the feminine vengeance canon, where it sits alongside more esoteric movies, like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Robert Altman’s Images (1972), Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976), Eckhart Schmidt’s Der Fan (aka: Trance, 1982), and Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999). What makes Death Game so unique among rape/revenge and home invasion thrillers/horror movies is that the power dynamic is entirely weighted in the women’s favor – there’s no first act brutalization and the protagonist is a man with no clear nefarious motive. Furthermore, the villainesses’ motives are purposefully ambiguous. They have vague backstories that imply sexual abuse and can be seen to represent ideology, but, as characters, they’re more akin to unbridled, psychotic, adolescent id. Traynor implies the context of broader class warfare issues, the Electra complex, incestual abuse, and pedophilia themes are no secret, but it works so well because of what the audience can read into the hysteria.



Video

Grindhouse’s advertising claims that Death Game was considered a lost film and that this Blu-ray is its home video premiere. Technically speaking, this isn’t true. There were US VHS releases from United Home Video, VCI, and Video Gems, and budget label Cinema Pop (who I had honestly never heard of before) released a grey market DVD using the same (open-matte?) 1.33:1 VHS transfer. So the film did exist if you were willing to look for it (I personally watched a perfectly legal VHS rip before I reviewed Knock Knock), but subpar, cropped transfers really hurt its potential. Grindhouse’s 1080p Blu-ray was sourced from the original camera negative, restored in 4K, and presented in the intended 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The company really took their time with this one, having originally announced it way back in March 2019, then finally released a website exclusive in March 2022.


Death Game is a really grainy film, so much so that it even showed up on otherwise fuzzy VHS transfers. It is also a very colorful film with oodles of gritty textures and deep black shadows. The challenge of this particular transfer is balancing all of these elements without overloading the integrity of David Worth’s cinematography. Some shots are a bit on the shimmery side, lighter elements can appear blocky during the darkest scenes, and the blacks and whites are purposefully overcranked, but there’s almost zero notable print damage and both the color quality and detail are really impressive. Without knowing any better as to what went into the restoration, I’d guess that this is the best Death Game will ever look, outside of a 4K UHD version of the same transfer.



Audio

Death Game is presented in its original mono sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. In keeping with everything else, the sound design is very weird, but often in a subtle way that magnifies the film’s dream-like nature. First is the obvious presence of dubbing, specifically male lead Seymour Cassel whose entire performance was re-dubbed by an uncredited David Worth – the same guy that acted as cinematographer and editor – when Cassel refused to participate in post-production. The result is a voice that doesn’t match the actor, a completely different sound quality to the performances, and there are even cases of background effects dropping out completely whenever Cassel’s character speaks. The music is the real kicker, though, from repeated use of the ​​aforementioned Ron Hicklin Singers song and end credit “We’re Home,” crooned like a Bond theme by Maxine Weldon, to composer Jimmie Haskell’s eclectic, genre-spanning main score.



Extras

Disc One:

  • Commentary with actress Colleen Camp and director Eli Roth – Roth sort of acts as moderator/interviewer, but the duo are clearly real friends as well, so the track is a really satisfying mix of production factoids, personal anecdotes (Camp breaks down crying while remembering Sondra Locke and is diplomatic when it comes to discussing any of the behind-the-scenes controversy), and a rundown of Camp’s larger career. There are even parts of the discussion that make me appreciate Roth’s remake just a little more.

  • Commentary with producer Larry Spiegel and cinematographer/editor David Worth – The second track is mellower and spottier, but still informative (especially the technical aspects of Worth’s editing process) and built on a warm sense of nostalgia.

  • Little Miss Innocence (1973) (72:09, HD) – A fully restored bonus movie from director/producer/actor Chris Warfield, also known as Teenage Innocence. From what I can tell, it doesn’t share any cast, crew, or distribution companies with Death Game and has been included specifically for the plot and thematic similarities. This version of that story sees a playboy composer (John Alderman) replacing Cassel’s family man and a pair of horny hitchhikers, rather than plainly psychotic home invaders. It starts as a lighthearted softcore romp, but the last act grows almost comically dark. Warfield’s next (non-hardcore) feature, Teenage Seductress (1975), also, coincidentally or not, has a lot in common with Death Game. It’s about a young woman who plays a dangerous seduction game with her estranged deadbeat father.

  • Easter egg: Cast Care (17:22, SD) – A 1985 short hosted by Ricardo Montalbán and made by Traynor for the USC Medical Center

  • Theatrical trailer



Disc Two:

  • Ruthless: The Peter Traynor Story (109:39, HD) – An extensive, feature-length, all-encompassing interview with Traynor hosted by Eli Roth and conducted in the director’s home in 2019. The subject matter covers Traynor’s cinematic inspirations, his career in real estate and insurance, his early roles as producer on Mark L. Lester’s Steel Arena and Truck Stop Woman and Robert Butler’s The Ultimate Thrill (1974), taking over and reshooting much of Curtis Hanson’s God Bless Dr. Shagetz (aka: Evil Town, 1977), forming Centaur Films, failed projects, the USC educational videos, and various complications writing, casting, filming, post-producing, and release of Death Game. It includes plenty of stills and a few intervening clips with producer Larry Spiegel and cinematographer-editor David Worth.

  • Colleen Camp: In the Moment (60:35, HD) – Roth returns to interview Camp in this companion piece to the commentary track that sticks largely to the making of Death Game from her point of view. There’s a lot of overlap between this and the commentary, actually, so I suppose I’d recommend watching this first for the sake of its focus on her relationships with the cast & crew, then listen to the commentary.

  • Audio interview with Sondra Locke by Mike White (14:42 [short version], 44:07 [full version], SD) – Here we have two cuts of a telephone interview with the actress conducted by Mike White. The shorter version focuses on Death Game, while the longer one covers her larger career.

  • Game Changers (44:49, HD) – In this 2019 interview, producer Larry Spiegel and cinematographer-editor David Worth give their version of events, which, not surprisingly, often clashes with Traynor’s. Again, there’s a lot of overlap with the commentary, but I’d listen to this first, because Spiegel and Worth are kept on task by an interviewer and the discussion is edited.

  • A Tale of Two Scripts (44:10, HD) – The final exclusive interview features writer Michael Ronald Ross, who sets the stage with a true story he claims inspired the story (where he invited a drug addict into his home and wouldn’t leave for weeks), then talks about rewriting and selling the script he wrote with Anthony Overman, being completely out of the loop during filming, fighting for credit, stumbling across a copy of the film as The Seducers when copywriting video boxes, before breaking down the differences between his script and a different one that was eventually combined with his to make Death Game.

  • Still galleries – production stills, director Peter S. Traynor, promotional materials, VHS releases, and Grindhouse Releasing cover concepts

  • Grindhouse Releasing Prevues – Christina Hornisher’s Hollywood 90028 (1973), S. F. Brownrigg’s Scum of the Earth (1974), Love is Deep Inside (unknown), Stuart E. McGowan’s Ice House (aka: The Passion Pit, 1969), Ralph De Vito’s Family Enforcer (aka: The Death Collector, 1976), Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981), Duke Mitchell’s Massacre Mafia Style (1974) and Gone with the Pope (2009), Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces (1982), Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), Fulci’s Cat in the Brain (aka: Nightmare Concert, 1990), Amos Sefer’s An American Hippie in Israel (1972), Hartford-Davis’ Corruption (1968), Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968), Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (1968), David E. Durston’s I Drink Your Blood (1970), Marc B. Ray’s Captive Female (aka: Scream Bloody Murder, 1973), Lenzi’s The Tough Ones (aka: Rome Armed to the Teeth, 1976), and William Grefé’s Impulse (1974).

  • Easter eggs:

  • Lincoln-Mercury promo (5:25, SD)

  • Why Stitches are Necessary (11:04, SD) – USC Medical Center short by Traynor

  • Writer Michael Ross on Knock Knock (1:40, HD) – Ross learned about the existence of Roth’s movie via a Keanu Reeves radio interview and had to call the Writers Guild of America.

  • Colleen Camp's commercial modeling work (five stills)

  • The Passion Pit trailer




The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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