Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Peter S. Traynor|
Peter S. Traynor
Michael Ronald Ross
|Music by||Jimmie Haskell|
|Edited by||David Worth|
First American Films
|April 13, 1977|
Death Game (also known as The Seducers) is a 1977 American horror-thriller film directed by Peter S. Traynor and written by Anthony Overman and Michael Ronald Ross. The film stars Sondra Locke, Colleen Camp, and Seymour Cassel. Death Game tells the story of George Manning, a well-to-do San Francisco businessman, husband, and father who invites a pair of rain-soaked young women into his house to wait out an evening thunderstorm. The two girls seduce Manning and ultimately kidnap and torture him in his own home.
Traynor, a former California real-estate financier, entered a career in filmmaking as a producer in the early 1970s, funding his projects through local investors. He purchased the script for Death Game to serve as his directorial debut. The film was shot primarily inside a large Los Angeles home with a small budget in only a couple of weeks during 1974 with a projected release the following summer. Production was allegedly plagued with on-set disputes among the first-time director and the cast, and eventually halted due to a federal investigation into Traynor's financing methods. The theatrical release of Death Game was delayed nearly two years.
Critical reception for Death Game has been mixed among reviewers and motion picture journalists. While some read into the plot and violence as social commentary, others rejected it as meaningless exploitation. Death Game made unremarkable box office returns during its limited theatrical run, but found a greater audience with its home media releases in the years that followed. The movie has been remade a few times, including 2015's Knock Knock, directed by Eli Roth and starring Keanu Reeves. Traynor, Locke, and Camp all took part in this film's production.
Taking place over a weekend in 1975, an opening text claims that the events of Death Game are based on true events. The film opens at the home of George Manning, a successful San Francisco Bay Area businessman who is left home alone on his 40th birthday while his wife Karen tends to a family emergency. A thunderstorm begins that evening and George is greeted at the door by two attractive, young women, drenched from the rain. The ladies, who introduce themselves as Jackson and Donna, explain to him that they intended to reach an address for a party on the other side of town when their car broke down. He invites them inside to dry off and make a call for a friend to pick them up. After the three chat pleasantly for a while, Jackson finds her way to a bathroom sauna. Donna eventually joins her, and George, curious about where they had gone, walks in on them bathing in the hot tub. The happily-married man is then seduced and coerced into sex with the two strangers. The following morning George awakes to find his guests cooking breakfast. Surprised that they had not left the night before, George is given a vague excuse as to why they never departed. It quickly becomes apparent that the girls have no intention of leaving. They become uncooperative, obnoxious, and defiant of George as they begin rummaging through the house's contents, putting on his wife's clothes, and even vandalizing the property. George, increasingly upset over their unwelcome presence, threatens to call the police. He stops when Jackson claims that the two are actually underage, and if caught he could face charges of statutory rape, a lengthy prison sentence, and the dissolution of his family life and career. After narrowly avoiding the girls being discovered by a visiting client, George attempts to contact the authorities once again before Jackson agrees that they will leave on the condition that George drive them.
George drops the two off at a city bus stop on the opposite side of the Golden Gate Bridge and makes the trip home that night, glad the ordeal is seemingly over. However, his relief is short-lived, as Jackson and Donna ambush him inside his home and knock him unconscious. The duo ties George up with bedsheets and subject him to physical and emotional abuse while continuing to trash the inside of the house. Their sadistic and often bizarre actions escalate as the night goes on. After George cries for help to a grocery delivery man, the girls usher the unfortunate courier into the living room, bludgeon him, and drown him in a fish tank. George's few struggles to escape fail. George tries to reason with his captors. At one point Jackson reveals to him that her unhinged behavior is due to own father having sex with her. The girls hold a mock trial amongst themselves to determine if George should face punishment for the supposed sexual crimes he committed the previous evening. At midnight, Jackson, acting as both a witness and judge, announces his guilty verdict and sentences him to death at dawn. When the six o'clock hour rolls around, Donna holds a now-exhausted George down while Jackson proceeds to carry out his execution using a large knife. She spares his life at the last moment and the pair finally take off, laughing maniacally.
The film's ending initially shows the two girls happily strolling down the road. The viewpoint suddenly cuts to a speeding truck, which swerves in their direction and strikes them head-on.
Cast and crew
Death Game was produced by independent company First American Films and was the directorial debut of Peter S. Traynor, a California real-estate magnate and former life insurance salesman who entered the motion picture industry as a producer only a few years earlier. In 1972, Traynor founded Centuar Films and partnered with director-producer Mark Lester to form the separate Lester-Traynor Films. As with Traynor's real-estate developments, Death Game and his two previous movies, Steel Arena and Truck Stop Women, were funded largely using limited partnerships with California physicians as investors. Death Game was one of several Traynor movies in simultaneous production alongside the features Bogard, The Ultimate Thrill, and Dr. Shagetz. Traynor also served as a producer of Death Game with Larry Spiegel.
The original script for Death Game was written by Jo Heims, an associate of Clint Eastwood. Traynor purchased the script (then titled "Mrs. Manning's Weekend") from Heims and eventually had it rewritten by Anthony Overman and Michael Ronald Ross. Sondra Locke was attracted to the project after being told by her agent about a role for a "bad girl", a part she had not often played. Death Game was one of the earliest film roles for Colleen Camp, who had recently left college and appeared mostly in small television roles and commercials up to that point. Actor Al Lettieri was originally set to play George Manning before the role went to Seymour Cassel. Comic Marty Allen was also reported to have a cameo as the delivery man early in the movie's development.
David Worth served as the film's cinematographer and editor. Jack Fisk was the production designer, while his wife, actress Sissy Spacek, worked as a set dresser. A young Bill Paxton also work as a set decorator on Death Game. The musical score was composed by Jimmie Haskell and features two original vocal themes: "Good Old Dad", with lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart and performed by the Ron Hicklin Singers; and "We're Home", with lyrics by Guy Hemric and performed by Maxine Weldon.
Filming and editing
The production budget for Death Game was $150,000 according to Worth. Filming took place in 1974, at which time the movie was known by numerous working titles including "Mrs. Manning's Weekend", "Mrs. Manning's Holiday", "Weekend of Terror", and "Handful of Hours". Principal photography took between thirteen and fifteen days. Traynor chose a large home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles as a primary filming location, which the crew rented for $1,000 per week. Both Locke and Worth have described the filming process for Death Game as extremely tumultuous. Locke claimed the original script for film was much more suspenseful and less exploitive, but that Traynor attempted to interject more comedic elements into the story. Locke criticized the director's lack of leadership, recounting he "didn't have any idea what he needed to be, was, or should be doing." She claimed his direction often consisted of simply telling the two lead actresses to "break something, or eat something". This gradually led to Cassel and Locke directing their own performances, as well as that of the less-experienced Camp. Tensions on set were high between Traynor and Cassel, as the actor constantly threatened to leave the production. After one scene involving the two female antagonists dumping large amounts of food on his character, Cassel was alledgedly so angry he nearly hit the director. He also reportedly refused to loop his character's dialogue once filming wrapped, leaving Worth to dub the voice of George Manning in post-production.
After the film's first director of photography was fired, Worth was brought on board as a replacement. Though initially reluctant due to the seemingly chaotic production, Worth took the job after learning that the cast included Locke and Cassel, both of whom had been nominated for an Academy Award for previous works. Worth shot most scenes in anamorphic widescreen using a 35 mm Panavison Panaflex handheld camera. Due to a limited budget and tight schedule, Worth found it more effective to simply sit down in a nearby chair to shoot close-ups of the actors rather than arduously set up a tripod each time. He also had to underexpose scenes featuring Locke because of her extremely fair complexion. The lead actress has expressed appreciation for Worth's photography of her in Death Game. During the last days of filming, Locke suffered a black eye off the set and had to have her injury concealed by giving her character a large amount of makeup in the film's later scenes.
Death Game was originally set for an early summer 1975 release. However, the film was incomplete by this time and was among several studio projects put on hold due to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigating Traynor's financing methods. After settling with a consent decree several months later, Traynor sought help from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to finish Death Game. The company granted the director $100,000 and helped secure Levitt-Pickman as the film's distributor. Editing took place over a three-week period, with Traynor and Worth working together some 15 hours per day, seven days a week to completion.
Death Game premiered theatrically at the Northway Shopping Center in Colonie, New York on April 13, 1977. Thanks to the financial aid from MGM and distribution handling by Levitt-Pickman, Death Game was considered by Traynor as "a safe bet for drive-ins and as an urban cult attraction". According to Variety and BoxOffice reports, the film's limited theatrical run from May to October 1977 boasted "poor" to "fair" ticket earnings. Death Game found somewhat greater prominence on cable television and in video rental stores in the years that followed. It received domestic VHS releases in the US by United Entertainment under the title The Seducers beginning in 1981. The distribution rights then went to VCI Entertainment and the film was re-released on VHS in 1984 and on DVD beginning in 2004. Finally, distribution was acquired by Grindhouse Releasing around 2010. Death Game has been given international distribution, such as a UK release from Brent Walker and an Australian release by Intervision Video. The film has never been given a home media release in its original, anamorphic widescreen format.
Reception and themes
Critical response to Death Game has been mixed dating back to its original 1977 release. At the time of the film's debut in New York, Doug Delisle of The Times Record recognized the potential for contrasting reactions in moviegoers, with viewers either possibly seeing it as "a relentlessly painful and violent film with no purpose, no reason for being" or as "a statement about man's currently violent place in society" and "the inevitability of fate, the inability of man to isolate himself from a hostile environment". Delisle labeled Death Game as an "antithesis of much of the rest of today's cinematic gore", noting that the film strives to depict pain that is personal rather than physical. "Traynor's violence is not of the slick, exploitative variety," he summarized. "He doesn't show volumes of blood staining the celluloid with potential box office bucks." Literary critic John Kenneth Muir found an underlying feminist theme in Death Game stemming from its depiction of male infidelity and suggested immoral father-daughter relations. Muir explained that the film's narrative consistently points to this motif, including the opening sequence featuring the song "Good Old Dad", the female leads constantly calling George "daddy", and Jackson admitting to being a victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Muir saw the psychotic Jackson and Donna as the story's true protagonists. He further elaborated that the pair dish out a twisted form of justice against the average family man George, who is not only being punished for his own deeds, but is also serving as a surrogate for the society that made them that way. The film's director himself stated that the film "deals with the truth [...] a reflection of today's society", even implying the physical and mental superiority of women over the opposite sex. "Men often do recognize just how vulnerable they are in the hands of a woman," Traynor said, "And that's why a lot of us put them down."
Many journalists praised the film's structure and acting. Delisle stated that even with several plot holes, the film is "engrossing" and "extremely well-made" despite its modest budget, and that all three lead actors present "splendidly vivid and realistic portrayals" of their characters. Muir echoed this, proclaiming Death Game as "a riveting, sexual psycho-thriller, and well-directed and acted", finding it to have "the same discomforting adrenaline surge one feels in The Last House on the Left or Fatal Attraction". BoxOffice found the plot to have a "fascinating quality", whether based on true events or not. Rich Osmond of Cashiers du Cinemart stated that although he found much of the narrative "laughable and inept", he credited the lead actresses for conveying "genuinely creepy" moments in the film's second half. Others responded much more negatively to Death Game. Critic Leonard Maltin denounced the plot entirely, calling it as an "unpleasant (and ultimately ludicrous) film about two maniac lesbians who - for no apparent reason - tease, titillate, and torture a man in his own house." Variety similarly dismissed it as "another grisly try at horror exploitation and, as such, looms as possibly a fast-turn-over item in a situation afflicted with the severest case of product shortage."
Death Game has been remade twice. It was first adapted into the 1980 Spanish film Vicious and Nude (Viciosas al Desnudo), directed by Manuel Esteba and starred Jack Taylor, Adriana Vega, and Eva Lyberten. This release's sex scenes and violence are much more explicit than in the 1977 original.
Death Game was remade again as 2015's Knock Knock, directed by Eli Roth and starred Keanu Reeves, Ana de Armas, and Lorenza Izzo. Some of the principal cast and crew of the 1977 film participated in the production of Knock Knock. Peter S. Traynor, Larry Spiegel, Sondra Locke, and Colleen Camp are all credited as executive producers. Anthony Overman and Michael Ronald Ross are credited with the story. Camp also has a cameo in Knock Knock.
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