The philosopher Gaston Bachelard described the home as a space where, surrounded by strong walls and snuggly ensconced within a protective familial embrace, we are most free to be ourselves, to dream, to fantasise: “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace”. It is perhaps because of the protective function we assign to the home that the violation of domestic space has become a ubiquitous cinematic convention. There is something innately horrifying about the notion of some shadowy, malevolent figure trespassing in the very sanctuary we share with our families, our loved ones.
Although films featuring home invasion narratives were produced under the classic Hollywood studio system (notably, thrillers like 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number and 1964’s Lady in a Cage), the theme became increasingly prominent during the 1970s, as both social and familial cohesion fragmented under the weight of political strife, domestic conflict and international upheaval. The 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a proliferation of films centred around the trope of homeowners menaced by sinister intruders, with Straw Dogs (1971) and The Last House on the Left (1972) being amongst the most memorable contributions to the home invasion subgenre. These movies, often characterised by a grainy texture and squalid aesthetic, reflected a growing apprehension about the stability of the nuclear family, the sanctity of the home and the capacity of governments and law enforcement to maintain public order. Produced during a volatile political climate, both in the US and Europe, home invasion films located their horror in the growing permeability of previously rigid race or class-based hierarchies. In the US context, white Americans, who had once felt safe secured behind pristine picket fences somewhere out in the green suburbs, began to feel evermore vulnerable in the face of widespread social turmoil. Explosive race riots and political terrorism, alongside waves of seemingly unmotivated violence, taught them that danger lurked on their own doorsteps, always hovering just out of sight in the shadows of porches and entryways.
In the hottest summer days of 1969, rumours began to creep around the Hollywood Hills: murder, torture, roving bands of satanists and drug-crazed hippies. On the night of August 9th, 1969, the beautiful, glamorous movie star Sharon Tate was murdered alongside her equally beautiful and glamorous friends at her home on LA’s Cielo Drive. The next night, affluent supermarket executive Leno La Bianca and his wife Rosemary were killed by an unknown gang of intruders. Although the murders would ultimately be revealed as the work of cult leader Charles Manson and his acolytes, the identities of the culprits were initially shrouded in mystery. The fear that spread, first across the city of Los Angeles and then the nation, on those first chaotic days was bound up with the horrific prospect of unknown, unmotivated strangers breaking into ordinary American homes to torture and kill their inhabitants. The essayist Joan Didion famously described these crimes as the event that dismantled the 1960s dream of peace and love. More than this, however, the Tate-La Bianca murders stoked an immense paranoia among everyday middle-class Americans, who began to imagine that the walls and fences they had erected for themselves were far more fragile than they had anticipated.
In horror films and thrillers of this period, average (read: white and middle-class) American families fall victim to intruders who embody some form of unsettling Otherness, whether that’s racial difference, class or cultural difference, or simply a different lifestyle (hippies, punks or criminals). These films undoubtedly reflect the anxieties of the era in which they were made, as the boundaries that had traditionally separated racial and socio-economic groups became more fluid. A middle- or upper-class family could no longer ensure their safety and continued prosperity simply by removing themselves to the suburbs or hiding behind the high walls of a hilltop mansion. The impoverished masses, the crazed criminals and junkies, the maligned racial others left behind in increasingly derelict urban centres could still find them and bring their fury to the doorsteps of the rich.
Newly released on Blu-ray, with a beautiful 4K restoration, Peter S. Traynor’s 1977 film Death Game is an important but often overlooked contribution to the home invasion subgenre. Like more well-regarded, or at least better remembered, examples of the horror at home narrative, Death Game foregrounds class tensions and the fragility of the bourgeois American dream. Following an imminently creative title sequence, rendered in childlike crayon drawings, and a brief prologue that showcases the movie’s sun-kissed Californian setting, Death Game shifts to a dark and stormy night, as affluent businessman George Manning (a welcome genre turn from Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel) finds himself at the mercy of two psychotic girls (Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp). After taking pity on the young women, who appear at his door lost and soaked to the skin, George invites the girls to stay, encouraging them to dry off by the fire and offering them warm food. Donna, the bubblier of the pair, thanks him, alluding to the paranoia of the period by noting that not many people would take two strangers in off the street “these days”. For George, whose wife is away caring for their hospitalised son, the scenario initially appears like a “Dear Penthouse” letter come to life. The girls flirt shamelessly with the older man before leading him to a hot tub for a steamy threesome. Yet, upon waking the next morning, George comes to realise that his fantasy has quickly transformed into something infinitely more disturbing. When he tries to force Donna and Agatha (who goes by her surname, Jackson) to leave his home, the girls threaten to report him for sexual assault, claiming to be minors and promising to destroy both his family and his career.
Although the pair initially present themselves as polite, unassuming, even vulnerable young women, they are ultimately revealed as a threat to George’s comfortable upper-middle-class existence. When George tells them that he will drive them home if they will just get out of his house, the girls explain that they are homeless: “We’re on the road, George. We don’t have a home, George.” Like the hordes of young people who flocked to San Francisco (where the film is set) during the Summer of Love a decade before the release of Death Game, Donna and Jackson are unmoored from the strictures of middle-class existence. They have neither homes nor families. Indeed, Donna alludes to having run away from her family after she was sexually abused by her stepfather. The pair are not, however, content to simply break away from the norms and rules of the American family; rather, they seem determined to corrupt and destroy the family, both as a real, tangible entity and as a symbol of bourgeois complacency. Class divisions emerge early in the film and remain a key concern throughout. When they first enter the house, the girls obsess over George’s wealth, which to them seems immense. They fawn over his home sauna and comment repeatedly on his expensive stereo system. They try on his wife’s elegant clothes and makeup, and they gorge themselves with food from the family’s well-stocked pantry. They appear in awe of George’s stylish suburban home, with its warm, glowing fire and soft, cosy furnishings. Not only do they want these comforts for themselves, but they also hope to upend the order of George’s safe and happy home. They insert themselves into the abode of the bourgeois American family in order to corrupt it with their chaotic, violent impulses.
As the film progresses, the girls take pleasure in binding and torturing George while simultaneously engaging in an anarchic perversion of middle-class respectability. They prepare an elaborate breakfast for themselves and George, reminding him to eat up because “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. However, the masquerade slips, and the breakfast scene swiftly descends into a grotesque parody of a wholesome family meal. Donna and Jackson laugh uproariously as they hastily shove food into their mouths, slathering ketchup on their chins and spilling drinks on George’s pristine white tablecloth. Later, they play games with George, constructing him as a symbolic father figure and then humiliating him by tying him up and pelting him tomatoes before subjecting him to a degrading mock trial where the girls play the parts of judge, plaintiff and jury. Although not released until 1977, Death Game was filmed in Los Angeles in 1974, at a time when the city was still redolent with the lingering horror of the Tate-LaBianca murders. The trial of the Manson Family members involved in the brutal attacks concluded in the early months of 1971, just three short years before the film went into production. While the events that unfolded inside the courtroom had been highly disturbing in their own right, they were mirrored outside, on the streets of LA, by an even more spectacular performance. Outside the courthouse, young women, endlessly devoted to Manson, held a perpetual and very public vigil. Some even shaved their heads shaved and carved the letter “X” into their foreheads, imitating the bizarre antics of their leader and visibly signalling their loyalty to him. Death Game recalls these very real images of young women, smiling and incongruously joyful as they carried out horrendous crimes and pledged their unwavering devotion to a sadistic killer. Certainly, it is difficult to watch Donna and Jackson, characters who switch from sunny sweetness to merciless cruelty in an instant, without thinking of Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins and Leslie Van Houten, the “Manson Girls”, who while on trial for murder smiled broadly, sang softly and skipped like schoolgirls. Even Donna and Jackson’s more mischievous antics – their proclivity for performing vaudeville routines while dressed in Mrs Manning’s negligee and George’s formal wear, their playful banter, and the childlike delight they take in raiding the fridge – echo some of the stranger activities of the Manson Family. In particular, Donna and Jackson’s juvenile pranks recall the Family’s affinity for “creepy crawling”, a practice whereby Family members would break into cosy family homes, not to harm anyone, but simply to sneak around and rearrange furniture or other household items (and occasionally to steal). Although, prosecutors would later argue that “creepy crawling” was a “dress rehearsal for murder”, it was more about demonstrating that the “sanctity of the private home had been breached—that the Family had paid a visit to this family”.
The inherent silliness of Donna and Jackson’s games immediately connects them to the Manson Family and to the broader threat posed by criminals and outsiders to the sanctity of the family home. As critic Michael Fiddler explains, in home invasion films (as in the very real crimes that often inspire them), “the presence of the invader within a domestic setting disrupts boundaries [and] normative understandings of ‘home’ are problematised”. The home is no longer a refuge from the dangers of the world, or a safe space in which to raise a family. Instead, the besieged home highlights the vulnerability of accepted norms, bourgeois values and the carefully constructed hierarchies that constitute the social order. Death Game director Peter S. Traynor famously stated in a 1973 interview that while “there are a lot of people in the movie business who claim they are in it for art’s sake, I’m not. I’m in it to make money for my people. I don’t know who Art is, but I bet he’s awfully hungry by now”. Yet, despite Traynor’s disavowal of any artistic ambitions guiding his work, it is impossible to separate Death Game from the social and political anxieties of the era in which it was produced. Like the two unwanted guests at the heart of the film, they simply worm their way in and refuse to leave. Death Game, despite its director’s pragmatism, emerges as a thoughtful commentary on the bourgeois family, the paranoia that characterised the American seventies and the fragility of middle-class values. Moreover, the film itself is, with apologies to Traynor, a work of art. The cinematography by David Worth is innovative and dynamic. From the golden, softly lit opening scene to the sickly greens of the film’s hypnotic climax, Death Game remains visually arresting throughout. Grindhouse Releasing’s new 4K restoration, created from the original camera negative, really allows Worth’s cinematography to shine. Creative framing, playful use of cinematic space and some truly inspired editing likewise make Death Game a disconcerting, sickeningly memorable experience.
Yet, as alluring as the film’s visuals might be, the stunning performances by the film’s three lead actors are what make Death Game truly spectacular. Cassel’s journey from confident and friendly family man (albeit with sleazy undertones) to a broken, shuddering wreck is deeply compelling. Locke and Camp meanwhile are incredible duo. They play off each other in a magnificent, playful manner, goading one another to ever increasing heights of madness. Camp swings wildly between playful, child-like glee and sudden, furious violence. Locke, with her big expressive eyes and classic Hollywood glamour, exudes the unsettling energy of a faded, delusional silent-era starlet. Together, they give the impression of a demented vaudeville troupe, ecstatic performers whose jovial antics are always tinged with fury and madness. Like many home invasion films, from the subgenre’s early highpoint in the 1970s through to later works like Funny Games (1997/2008) and The Strangers (2008), Death Game is an ensemble piece, entirely dependent for its success on the interactions between the core performers. For much of the film’s runtime, Locke, Camp and Cassel are onscreen together with no other performers to carry the weight of the movie’s eccentric script and bizarre scenarios. However, their chemistry is undeniable, and the dynamic between all three is endlessly captivating.
Although Death Game may not be as well remembered as its 1970s home invasion contemporaries, it remains an immensely valuable contribution to the subgenre. Its central narrative conceit – two beautiful young women torturing a respectable businessman in his own home – is a fascinating reflection of the era’s social and political anxieties. The script is tense, and the film’s tendency to vacillate between absurd humour and grave menace makes viewing a profoundly unsettling experience. Visually engaging and anchored by stunning performances from the three main actors, Death Game is a film that deserves a much wider audience. Hopefully, Grindhouse Releasing’s exquisite new Blu-ray will go some way to ensuring that the film finds a larger fanbase.
The Grindhouse Releasing Blu-ray of Death Game comes with
- A new 4K restoration created from the original camera negative
- Interviews with lead actor Colleen Camp and director Peter Traynor, conducted by Eli Roth
- Interviews with co-star Sondra Locke, producer Larry Spiegel, cinematographer/editor David Worth, and screenwriter Michael Ronald Ross
- Audio commentaries by Colleen Camp & Eli Roth, and Larry Spiegel & David Worth
- full-color booklet with rare photos and liner notes
- Still galleries
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, 1994.
Mike Barnes, “Peter S. Traynor, Director and Producer on Death Game, Dies at 77”, The Hollywood Reporter, 5 Dec 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/peter-traynor-dead-death-game-director-producer-was-77-1259916/
Michael Fiddler, “Playing Funny Games in The Last House on the Left: The uncanny and the ‘home invasion’ genre”, Crime Media Culture, vol, 9, no 3, pp. 281–299, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1741659013511833
Jeffrey Melnick, Charles Manson’s Creepy Crawl: The Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family, Arcade, 2018.