Wednesday, May 10, 2017

They’re Playing with Fire (1984)

Young Jay (Eric Brown) clearly hits the jackpot of teenage dreams. His hot (if you like the type) Professor Diane Stevens (Sybil Danning) seduces him with all the subtlety and charm we know from Sybil Danning. Who’d have thought she has ulterior motives for it?

Before you know it, she and her husband Michael (Andrew Prine) ask Jay to break into the home of Michael’s – hilariously unpleasant - grandmother and mother to frighten them a bit. It’s apparently all part of a bizarre plan to have the two declared mentally unfit so that Michael and the rather costly Diane can get at their money. Diane’s veeeery convincing, so Jay agrees. However, he’s not terribly good at frightening old ladies and instead finds himself chased off and nearly shot in the back (Mum’s got guns). While he is fleeing, someone more competent murders the ladies, hiding the bodies afterwards.

Jay, Diane and Michael fall into the usual habit of infighting, distrust and betrayal. However, someone goes around killing more people, particularly those stumbling into the home of Grammy and Ma.

A look at the packaging and one-sheets of Howard Avedis’s film suggests some sort of teen sex comedy but in truth, all comedy included is exclusively of the inadvertent type. In truth, this is a tits and ass thriller that for the last thirty minutes or so veers into the realm of the bizarro slasher – perhaps imagining itself to be an American giallo – and ends on one of the more bizarre ideas of what the words “happy end” mean. But explaining that last one would really be telling.

Obviously, it’s not a very good film. Avedis’s direction is just sort of there and the plot feels as if someone had mashed up the pages of about three different movies without much of an interest in coherence, logic or any of those other advanced concepts of the art of screenwriting.

Fortunately, They’re Playing with Fire has quite a few other things going on that turn it into something terribly entertaining, and often pretty damn funny. From the first “seduction” scene on, Brown and Danning have all the on-screen chemistry of two rather freakish looking pieces of wood. Danning seems – as is so often the case with her – to believe that shoving her breasts into someone’s face and hugging him awkwardly is the high water mark of all things erotic (full disclosure: aesthetically, Danning never did anything for me, which is a bit of a problem since she certainly isn’t as a rule hired for her acting prowess). Brown spends most of his screen time looking like a frightened rabbit in the headlight; except in the sex scenes with Danning, where he looks so damn uncomfortable you want to give the poor guy a pat on the head. Combined, these two are comedy gold, and if the film did this one purpose, I’d probably praise it as a masterpiece that’s finally honest about how the fulfilment of male teen sex dreams would actually look. Of course, it’s just rather spectacularly inept.

I’m particularly fond of the film’s slasher elements. The killer – and his backstory – make no sense at all, the presence of the victims in the house generally even less, and there’s a glorious randomness about every single scene involving him. A particularly delightful moment is when he starts a kill by stepping out of a wardrobe dressed in a Santa Claus costume. Now, keep in mind that the film neither takes place on Christmas, nor is there any particular connection between the killer and the holiday. It’s just something someone involved in the production thought to be a good idea at the time, and who could blame them?

Then there’s the happy end, but that’s something everybody should have to go through by themselves (while imbibing some legal drugs), I daresay.

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