Join us for our year-long celebration of the USA World Premiere Movie in conjunction with Made-for-TV Mayhem! Check out out previous entries on THE FORGOTTEN here, MURDER BY NIGHT here, THE TICKET here and SNOW KILL here!
One of the best things about USA World Premiere Movies is their efficiency. The best of the bunch are masters of pacing because they have to be – with commercial breaks threatening to drive audiences to other channels where there might be something exciting happening, made-for-television movies need to have a good dramatic moment every ten minutes or so, just to make sure you’ll come back.
Twelve minutes into this week’s exploration into the wild world of the USA World Premiere Movie, the structure of the film has been set, the plot is in motion, and everyone is on the run. We’ve already seen two murders. People are being hunted. There is drama. There is excitement. There is THE WARRIORS’ Michael Beck with Henry Winkler hair.
This is truly a DEADLY GAME.
The pacing isn’t the only reason that 1991’s DEADLY GAME is one of my favorite USA Movies. It’s also a “Most Dangerous Game” retread, a subgenre to which I will always give my time freely. A group of seven strangers are summoned to an island with the promise of various deals and financial aid only to find that their would-be beneficiary is actually someone who knew them before and blames them for his unfortunate life that he’s going to hunt them down unless they can make their way to a boat on the other half of the island, picking up bags of one million dollars each en route.
How unfortunate is this guy’s life? It’s so unfortunate that he owns A PRIVATE ISLAND WITH A GIANT MANSION FULL OF SERVANTS, so we’re talking someone who can really hold a grudge about stupid crap. The mad and masked Osiris (a character helpfully points out that it’s the name of the Egyptian God of the Dead) is played by Fredric Lehne, most recently seen as the murderous jazz man Frank McCann on “American Horror Story,” and while he’s fun to watch, the flick lives up to its title and is all about the prey rather than the predator.
And what prey there is! There’s the aforementioned Michael Beck, as a wandering teacher who knew Osiris when they were both in the military, and who Osiris blames for abandoning him. There’s Marc Singer, as a former all-pro quarterback who framed Osiris for a drunk-driving accident that he caused. There’s character vet John Pleshette as Singer’s little buddy. There’s Soon-Tek Oh as a yakuza boss. There’s Jenny Seagrove in the lead as a ballet studio owner who meets Osiris at a New Orleans masquerade. And to cap it all off, there’s Roddy McDowall, as a doctor who couldn’t perform the facial surgery to make Osiris look pretty again.
A great batch of character actors going through the paces of frantically turning against each other as they’re being hunted by a masked psychopath and his thugs (Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Joseph Arias and CHINA WHITE’s Steven Vincent Leigh) would have been enough to sate any self-respecting telemovie fan, but writer Westbrook Claridge (TEKWAR) goes one better by having each character’s earlier relationship with Osiris related via flashback, thus serving as a mini-anthology film as we see how everyone has wronged him. The results range from genuinely well made to ridiculous, the highlight being Singer playing his character as a teenager, complete with letterman jacket and cheap wig.
Despite interruptions from the main plot, there’s plenty of entertainment value to be had from the actual tracking sequences as well. Osiris, it seems, as a big “Clue” fan, and hands various huntees a rope, a machete, a pistol and bullets in order to start them properly squabbling. Cocky jackass Mitch Ryan as outraged that their group includes “an old man? And a woman? They’ll slow us down!” but the woman has plans of her own, including the idea that “If we split up, won’t it make it easier for them?”
Strangely, nobody calls her on this (unlike most slasher movies involving one maniac, this seems like this would be a situation where it would actually be better to split up) and the group goes upon their merry way, having their past recounted when Osiris’s cleverly-placed tokens remind them that they need to have a flashback. (Singer’s is prompted by a bloody pom-pom.) Will secrets be revealed? Will the morally bad characters get punished and the morally good characters live? Will Michael Beck lead his gang of misfits to Coney the other end of the island? Probably!
From the opening sequence involving someone getting shot in the eye (Osiris apparently has a LOT of enemies. Like I said, he holds a grudge! These days he’d just have a pissy blog or a cable channel.) backed by a slow groove song more appropriate for an early ‘80s romantic drama starring Ryan O’Neal and Mary Tyler Moore (in a role that will SHOCK YOU!) to the absurd climax that grabs believability by the throat and beats it to a bloody pulp, DEADLY GAME is exactly the sort of hugely entertaining potboiler that TV movies were made for.
Sure, it lacks graphic violence so it won’t please the drive-in set, but it’s never less than watchable and is paced with the desperation that viewers could turn away at any second. Director Thomas J. Wright (NO HOLDS BARRED) was one of the network’s go-to telemovie directors, making swift work on the likes of SNOW KILL (which Made for TV Mayhem did last week) and CHROME SOLDIERS (which we’ll get to eventually), and DEADLY GAME makes it easy to see why.
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