Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"You Can't Buy A Ticket To See This Movie!"

... So teased the posters for THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! at the time of its 1968 release, and the ballyhoo has somehow adhered as prophecy. This well-crafted horror sleeper has become one of the most difficult to see of its era, though a number of its lesser fellow releases from The Fanfare Corporation -- like SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES and WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS -- have surfaced on DVD in recent years. Last week, I had the good fortune to see it again on DVD-R, for the first time since the early 1970s, when a cut version of this film "Suggested for Mature Audiences" ran on local television.
It stars Jack Lord, Susan Strasberg, Collin Wilcox (so memorable as Thedy in THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR's "The Jar"), Tisha Sterling and T.C. Jones (HITCHCOCK HOUR's "An Unlocked Window") -- and it probably works best if you have no idea who T.C. Jones is (or was; the actor died in 1971). The director was Gunnar Hellstrom, a Swedish expatriate who worked primarily in television (his 1967 WILD WILD WEST episode "The Night of the Running Death" also featured T.C. Jones), and the twisted screenplay was the best effort of Gary Crutcher, author of the subsequent snake melodrama STANLEY and the Joyce Jillson jigglethon SUPERCHICK.

Reviewing THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! for CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Joe Dante reported that the film contained "moments of Bava-like brilliance," and indeed it does. The film is obviously the work of a craftsman with a feeling for the genre, and it's regrettable that Hellstrom never made another horror picture. The only circulating copy of the film originated from a dim and faded 16mm print, so it's impossible to determine what cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was able to achieve with its color, but Hellstrom and art director Ray Markham adorn the story with subtle and decorative scares and a deliberately unsettling mise en scène cluttered with psychologically resonant geegaws like broken dolls. The story involves Lord, playing a Hungarian emigré hitchhiker in the American West, who has the good fortune to be rescued by a beautiful savior (Strasberg), who takes him to the secluded home that she shares with her mother and an older and younger sister, all very strange and unpredicatable women. Their home also maintains a roadside display of rattlesnakes and tarantulas -- Sterling's beloved pets -- which marks the picture as the missing link between Jack Hill's SPIDER BABY and Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. The family name here is Terry, a soundalike to the Merrye family of SPIDER BABY.

What unfolds once Lord gets to the house, where the various daughters proceed to fight over the right to mate with him by circulating disinformation about one another, is what came to be known for awhile as a "horror of personality" film (a term coined by Charles Derry's 1977 book DARK DREAMS: A PSYCHOLOGICAL HISTORY OF THE MODERN HORROR FILM [A.S. Barnes & Co., 1977]), but which is now termed "psychological horror." Strasberg as Tracey, to whom Lord is most drawn, is said to be a nymphomaniac with a history of violent break-ups; the plainish Willcox as Diz ("Diz N. Terry," perhaps?) is initially hostile to Lord but soon reveals herself to be very attracted and perhaps the most sexually experienced of the group; Sterling as Nan is the youngest and comports herself like Jill Banner's Virginia in SPIDER BABY, doting on a tarantula and acting like a child, unconscious of her own sexuality yet expert at deploying it to achieve her own ends. (In one of the film's most peculiar moments, a miniskirted Sterling dances provocatively to the psychedelic caterwaul of "Shadows," a forgotten song by The Electric Prunes ["I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night"]). The mother (Jones) is seemingly the most normal of the bunch... until we learn that she may have murdered her own husband, an act of extreme violence that drove her and her daughters to this secluded outpost. Everyone gets their own soliloquy, occasionally stopping the story's progress cold but at the same time deepening it and further disorienting the viewer, who receives so many alternate backstories that it's impossible to get one's bearings. The possibilities simply turn stranger and stranger until the film reaches a point where the volatile mixture cannot help but explode.

The film ends with a tantalizing freeze-frame of Susan Strasberg, chilling in its beauty, and in the days since I've seen the movie again, what I've most carried away from it is a greater appreciation of what this neglected actress brought to the cult cinema of the 1960s. The daughter of legendary Actor's Theater coach Lee Strasberg, Susan made this film when she was 30 -- thirteen years down the road from her Tony-nominated stage debut in the title role of the original 1955 production of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. (She had done some even earlier small roles in live television drama like GOODYEAR TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE and GENERAL ELECTRIC THEATER.) She worked on the stage, in television, starred in Hammer's psychological horror gem TASTE OF FEAR (aka SCREAM OF FEAR), and spent time making films in Italy before she returned to the States.
In 1965, she married the hot young actor Christopher Jones and, with him, signed a short-term contract with American International Pictures. It was under AIP's auspices that Strasberg made Roger Corman's THE TRIP (in which she is a compelling but almost incidental ingredient as Fonda's ex-wife) and Richard Rush's PSYCH-OUT, in which she played a deaf-mute searching the Haight-Ashbury scene for her lost brother. No one ever has control over what they'll be best remembered for, and one doubts that Strasberg knew while making PSYCH-OUT that she was giving what would arguably become her signature screen performance. After making CHURUBUSCO with Jones, they divorced. Neither she nor Jones went on to fulfill the promise expressed by the performances they gave at AIP, but Strasberg continued to make her presence known in horror and exploitation films. She was featured in episodes of NIGHT GALLERY and THE EVIL TOUCH, and features like SO EVIL MY SISTER, THE LEGEND OF HILLBILLY JOHN and BLOODY BIRTHDAY. And let us not forget (though she'd probably wish us to) she also gave birth to THE MANITOU.

By the time she had reached 30, Strasberg had transformed from the vaguely elfin ingenue of her earliest work, and the prematurely matured star of SCREAM OF FEAR, into a beauty whose sexiness was rooted in an unusual combination of silken good looks, sobriety and confidence. She was the opposite of what passed for sexy at the time, closer to the epicenter of what passes for sexy when one considers The Big Picture. There was something about her that made her better casting as the ex-wife than the wife, and perhaps better still as disillusioned, defensive loners. She made us want to reach out to her, despite the likelihood that our hand would be slapped away, at least initially. Her later career, heavy in guest spots on interchangeable TV shows about doctors and lawyers, emphasizes the trouble she encountered in finding a niche onscreen -- and, as much as I like her and have strived to make sense of her persona, I'm finding it difficult to write about her. Nevertheless, it's a tribute to her work in THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! that I finally got serious about wanting to know her better, and promptly ordered used copies of her two works of biography -- BITTERSWEET and MARILYN AND ME -- to spend some time inside her head. All that I know now, in my heart of hearts, is that Susan Strasberg mattered -- if only for the vaguely absurd reason that I now find it impossible to hear anything by the Strawberry Alarm Clock without being reminded of her and moved by the memory. She died of breast cancer in early 1999 at the much-too-young age of 60, only a few titles shy of 100 different movie and TV credits.
Bootleg copies of THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! do circulate online. Google the title and you're certain to find one or two sources.

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