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[Keeping it Golden] ‘Fatal Games’ is Strictly Murder by Numbers

[Keeping it Golden] ‘Fatal Games’ is Strictly Murder by Numbers

The Slasher Golden Age began with Halloween in 1978 and ended right around the time a group of protesting moms with too much time on their hands led to the truncated theatrical release of Silent Night, Deadly Night. With “Keeping it Golden” I aim to chronicle my journey watching every single slasher film from the period,  78′ – 84′. By my calculations (and I’m certain I’m missing a few), there are a total 194 199 films featuring masked murderers and nubile corpses in the making, and I’m going to watch them all! Sure, some of them are classics I’ve seen a zillion times already (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street). However, there are plenty that I’ve never gotten around to, or, simply, never knew existed (Fatal Games, The Phantom Killer). For a list of all the films, head here. And, please, if you notice any omissions – let me know.

“Keeping it Golden” #2: Fatal Games (1984)

“Take it all the way. No second chance, you’re on your own now. Winning isn’t everything. Winning is the only thing…Take it to the limit! Just give it all you gotta give, yeah!” – Take it to the Limit, Shuki Levy and Deborah Shelton

As the above mentioned lyrics to the insanely peppy theme song suggest, this film is about the desire to give it your all and push yourself harder than you ever thought imaginable, all in the name of achieving maximum athletic greatness…if only there weren’t a psycho on the loose spearheading gymnasts with a javelin every chance they got. Such is the world our characters exist in Fatal GamesYou see, Fatal Games takes place on the campus of the Falcon Academy of Athletics (aka the same California high school where Jawbreaker and Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th were filmed). What exactly the students are going in so hardcore for is never entirely clear. But they are training non-stop for an upcoming competition. We have swimmers, runners, gymnasts and, of course, javelin throwers. The school is run by washed up coaches who missed their own chance at greatness, an overly touchy nurse, and a head doctor who passes out steroids like a nurse at the local methadone clinic. These kids are juiced and ready to “take it to the limit!”

There is, of course, the pesky issue of a multiple murderer on the loose. The killer in question appears to be targeting the seven members of the gymnastics team, placing a large “x” across the face of each victim on a group photo as they’re whittled down one by one. All in all, Fatal Games is NOT striving for originality. In fact, the film carries more than a striking resemblance to the I’ve-never-been-able-to-finish-it Graduation Day. Our killer here dresses in a black tracksuit and hoodie, brandishing only a javelin as their means of annihilation. I thought for sure there would be some variation with the murder weapon. Like, maybe they would miss their target with the javelin and have to improvise with something else. Nope. All javelin, all the time. Whoever it is taking down the Falcon Academy kids is one brilliant marksman. They never miss.

The victims of said maniac are…not developed? Most of the characters are hard to keep track of as they’re only seen working out, trying to get laid, or showering. That’s pretty much the extent of character interactions. Which, for those of you interested in such things, what’s an 80s slasher without some nudity, right (hopefully in the age of PornHub you’re not turning to 80’s slashers for your fix, but who knows)? Well, Fatal Games has skin game in spades, to the point it feels like a scuzzy porno at some points. The incredibly bland cinematography and direction don’t help. The lead, Annie played by Lynn Banashek, was unwilling to disrobe for camera during an extremely uncomfortable massage sesh with the school Nurse (Sally Kirkland), so the filmmakers did what most low budget horror productions did in the 80s – they brought in Linnea Quigley to act as body double.

On the plus side, the filmmakers took an equal opportunity approach with the gratuitous flesh displays. There’s just about as much male T&A on display as their female counterparts. From the overabundance of floppy whitey-tighties, I was beginning to think David DeCoteau must have had something to do with the film’s production. The pièce de résistance, however, comes when a poor girl is chased out of the shower in her birthday suit. It’s one of the few actual chase scenes in the film and the actress does it completely in the bare, a full 25 years prior to Betsy Rue’s iconic scene from My Bloody Valentine 3D. Ultimately, as exploitative as such a scene is, there’s a genuine vulnerability to the act of running for your life in the buff that lends a sense of dread to the moment, however unintentional it may have been on behalf of the men behind the cameras.

In the end, Fatal Games is truly the definition of “Bargain Bin.” There’s little in the way of creative juice driving the proceedings. Almost every scene is shot with the bare minimum of coverage. There’s an extended climactic moment with a sleuth hopping around on crutches through the abandoned school at night in search of clues that goes on forever with one wide shot after the next. When they finally cut to a close up, it’s startling. Again, against the intention of the filmmaker, it still manages to create a sense of tension as you become very aware something bad must be about to happen as they took the time to set up a second shot for the scene. That one moment pretty much sums up the experience of watching Fatal Games. It’s never actually boring, but it feels like most of the entertainment value was stumbled upon by pure accident.

The biggest moment worth mentioning comes with the killer’s reveal, and if you would like to remain spoiler free, I recommend you just skip to “The Golden Tally.” That said, I don’t think spoilers would really ruin the experience of watching Fatal Games. Either way, you’ve been warned. Throughout the film, we are presented several different homoerotic moments (and some just erotically homo). There’s the coach who has a secret relationship with one of her pupils. The moment their relationship is revealed ends with a peck on the forehead as the actress in question had apparently become a born again Christian during a break in filming and refused to commit to a full on lesbian smooch. The other interaction come from our lead Annie and Nurse Diane (how Kirland went directly from this to an Academy Award winning performance in Anna, we may never fully understand). After giving Annie an overly touch full body massage, Dinae shows more than a passing interest in the vulnerable youngster. All this, despite seeming to have the hots for a fellow grizzled faculty member of the male persuasion.

With my knowledge of queer understanding in the realm of 70s/80s horror it was clear to me that one of them must be the killer (we’re always presented as deviants in the slasher flicks). Diane seemed to be the obvious choice as she had considerable screen time and exuded unparalleled creep factor. Plus the only other real red herring was taken out much earlier than to be expected in this scenario. When Diane finally removes the hoodie and enters into the final chase with Annie, we quickly learn the she is actually a he. It seems Diane was disqualified from the Olympics after a “failed sex change.” Much like de Palma’s Dressed to Kill, Diane is at odds with her male personality and wants to punish those who have any chance at the success she was robbed of. This could all be viewed as offensive if it weren’t handled in such a hilariously bad manner. Kirkland’s voice after the unveiling is modulated to give her a deep, manly tone. She taunts her victim as she declares her motive and I couldn’t help but be tickled by the absurdity of it all. Ahh..the 80s.

END SPOILERS. While Fatal Games is no lost classic, it’s not the worst to come out of the Golden Age. It was undoubtedly filmed with dollar signs in mind and not artistic fulfillment. Despite the generic cash grab approach of the production, it’s clear why the film has built up a teeny cult following. It’s thoroughly entertaining for slasher diehards. Those hoping for a modern release on Blu have some hope as Code Red apparently retains the rights, though word on the street is there’s no decent quality print available for any potential restoration. Who knows, though, even Humongous got a glossy re-release.

The Golden Tally

Bodycount: 6

Jump Scares: 2 

Best Murder Sequence: This one is tough, because as mentioned above, the murders are all very similar. Visually, I’ll give it to “Spear Fishing in the Swimming Pool,” but for the sake of blood and surprise we’ll go with “Javelin Workout.”

SGA Tropes: Gratuitous Nudity, Even More Nudity, Killer Can Seemingly Teleport, Saying The Following: “I’m going away for the weekend” Only Means You Won’t Be Missed Once You Get Killed, No One Calls the Cops, Casting Linnea Quigley, Did I Mention Gratuitous Nudity?

Tagline: “The second prize is death!”

Overall: Bargain Bin*

*NOTE ON OVERALL SCORES: “Top Shelf” is the highest honor bestowed upon those slashers that break the mold, or, at least represent the exemplary execution of old clichés. “Midnight Matinee” may not be a classic, but it’s more than worthy of your 90 minutes. “Bargain Bin” is for run of the mill entries that still manage to entertain; they could be harmless fun or so-bad-it’s-good disasterpieces – typically recommended for diehards only. “Trash Fire” is for those films whose mere existence is hard to reckon with.



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