Director: Scott Mansfield
Notable Cast: Alexandra Morgan, Jo Ann Harris, Sam Groom, Saul Sindell, Steve Railsback, Denise Galik, Dick Butkus
If you’re a horror fan of a certain age, then growing up with slashers and having an affinity for them is part of the nostalgia and heritage. They were all the rage and became the formula for what the social conscious associated with the term horror. Although I would not care to place myself within the confines of being a slasher diehard, I, too, have an affinity for the genre that piques my interest when I hear about lost films from the golden era (i.e. 1980s.)
However, the die-hards of the genre will certainly claim that a slew of films from that timeline are cult classics when they are often baffling, watered-down representations of all the great things that slashers could be even within the boundaries of its genre. For every true slasher gem, whether it is the surprisingly competent and effective tones of The Mutilator or the hilariously tongue-in-cheek Blood Rage, there are ones that simply do not come close to living up to the standards of the genre - even with nostalgia goggles firmly in place.
Deadly Games, despite its glorious cover artwork absolutely meant to guarantee rentals in the ma n’ pop video shops of the 1980s, is one of those films. For every moment where it finds traction in a fun idea or shockingly sober pop of artistry, there are a dozen perplexing choices being made throughout the film. It’s bewildering how Deadly Games manages to misfire at almost every corner from its concept, script, performances, or style.
Deadly Games, at its core, is mishandled in concept. It feels like a made-for-TV relationship drama that just happens to trip into being a slasher from time to time. This is perhaps its biggest obstacle to overcome. While it starts off with a slasher sequence, featuring the most random intentional nudity I’ve seen in quite some time, the film quickly devolves into a bland relationship drama, effectively destroying any pacing with its plot or narrative.
Not that combining slasher elements with character dynamics and relationship values can’t be effective, but it’s definitely not effective in Deadly Games. The romantic character plots are forced and often generic. It’s hard to care about any of the characters in their mundane interactions with slightly questionable morals. While there are interesting ideas at play - including the friendship between the police detective and the town outcast - so much of it never adds anything to the intrigue or slasher plot of a masked killer knocking off the young women of the town.
Yet, this film is a slasher, so I kept waiting for the kills to save me. When those kill sequences do come up, they are, unfortunately, also relatively bland. Conceptually, it would seem like Deadly Games is meant to be a more realistic and grounded slasher, but it’s lacking depth of performance or tension in the direction, it never finds its balance. There are moments where the film may have succeeded in finding the entertainment of its idea with its stylistic choice - including a pool death or in its use of a theater to invoke some theatrics, but none of it sticks. The kills are as boring as the characters talking about their own small town bullshit.
It’s only in the third act that Deadly Games seemingly starts to find its pace and tone. By then, it’s far too late to salvage anything. There are moments once the reveal of the killer is made (it’s exactly who you think it is) that might have led to a far superior film, but they almost feel like they happen accidentally. It’s odd and ineffective. To add salt into the wound, the final moment of the film is so perplexing that it leaves a horrifically sour taste with its viewer. Just wait for it. It’s unintentionally hilarious.
It’s always notable to never judge a film by its cover or poster. Deadly Games is a testament to that lesson. The film is bland, filled with generic characters played with little gusto by its cast, and it never pops with any of the slasher elements that the genre often leans into - including a series of utterly forgettable kill sequences. As if it wanted to go even further to avoid being fun, the teases of a horror board game with its title and opening sequence are never utilized in any way. What could have been a strong idea and fun gimmick is a tease that never comes to fruition.
Maybe this is a film that will find its cult following with some time and reassessment, but it’s hard to call it a lost gem of the genre. Deadly Games is not a game worth playing, so feel free to pass on rolling the dice for this one.