Friday, April 22, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Get Your Fingers Burned

Year: 1984
Director: Howard Avedis
Cast: Sybil Danning, Eric Brown, Andrew Prine
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Plot: They're Playing with Fire follows Diane Stevens (Sybil Danning), an English professor at Oceanview College, who seduces student Jay Richard (Eric Brown of Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy, and who was fresh off 1981's similarly themed Private Lessons) in an attempt to convince him to sneak into her mother-in-law's home, which will somehow drive her mad and thus get her declared incompetent so control of her vast estate goes to Diane's husband Michael (Andrew Prine of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Amityville II: The Possession, and two episodes of Freddy's Nightmares). Unfortunately, somebody kills Andrew's mother and grandmother that same night, and every member of the trio suspects another of committing the crime. Meanwhile, a killer in a ski mask is continuing to lurk around the property.

Analysis: This is definitely one of those films where being straight might be a prerequisite. Sybil Danning is a beautiful woman, and while the fact that she is either changing or showering during about 95% of her dialogue is highly amusing to me, it doesn't ignite any of the more prurient interests that this film was clearly intended to provoke. Instead of Eric Brown's affable geek character allowing me to transpose myself into his situation, it really left the door open for me to examine the mystifying way the relationships in his life function. Don't get me wrong, he's a cute guy, but the fact that every blonde in the film is throwing herself at his feet (his doting ex-girlfriend Cynthia is an especially peculiar psychological study) is less a fantasy and more an erotic uncanny valley. 

However, even for the people in the audience who might be interested in studying Sybil Danning's statuesque form from as many angles as possible, there's not that much that will rev the engine beyond one allegedly steamy sex scene and a lot of vacant stripteasing while she bloviates about her schemes. This is a boring movie by any yardstick, and it gets off on being withholding. 

Take the crop of teenagers who barely make any impression on the movie, including Glenn (Dominick Brascia, a well-decorated Census Bloodbath veteran from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, Rush Week, Evil Laugh, and Hard Rock Nightmare). They show up every 20 minutes or so to debate whether or not they should party or study (the character of Janice is firmly in the latter camp, considering that every line she speaks is a variation on the theme of "let's go to my place and study!"), eventually arrange themselves neatly at the place where the killings happen while the person doing said killings is present, and then... drive away chatting amongst themselves, never to be seen again.

They're Playing with Fire keeps promising a slightly more interesting movie that it doesn't deliver on, so much so that the somewhat frequent really weird moments that crop up become even more potent because they're unexpected. I'm not just talking the random suit of armor in the basement or the guy who orders his pizza with mustard and anchovies (perhaps the scariest scene in the film), but a full on stalk-'n-slash sequence where the killer is wearing a Santa outfit that is never referenced before or after that moment.

The third act killer reveal is reasonably successful at drumming up atmosphere, at the very least. While Jay and Diane are trapped in an attic filled with genuinely unsettling paintings, the killer is outside the door menacing them in a baby voice that's certainly bizarre. If every scene had the energy of the brief moments where the killer rears his head, it would be a superb weirdo slasher, but alas there are too many long dialogue sequences that tax the actors delivering them far beyond their capabilities.

Killer: Martin "Bird" Johnson (Paul Clemens)
Final Girl: Diane Stevens (Sybil Danning)
Best Kill: Having the killer shoot a grandmother in the back of the head while she's watching a televangelist program on TV is certainly a bold move.
Sign of the Times: The title theme, which sounds like somebody rooted through Tina Turner and Irene Cara's wastebaskets and synthesized a track out of the scraps.

Scariest Moment: While Jay is sneaking through a seemingly empty house, a shadow moves in an ever-so-slightly wrong way that could be his shadow but keeps nagging at you until it is revealed that he is indeed not alone.
Weirdest Moment: I mean, the scene where the killer is dressed as Santa (an outfit that is never reused) and bonks Cynthia on the head with a baseball bat just has to be it.
Champion Dialogue: "Come on in, I'm not going to rape you."
Body Count: 6
  1. Lillian in shot in the chest and cheek.
  2. Grandma is shot in the back of the head.
  3. Cynthia is beaten to death with a bat.
  4. Michael is stabbed in the gut.
  5. George is macheted in the neck.
  6. Bird is shot.
TL;DR: They're Playing with Fire is a boring, allegedly erotic thriller, but there is just enough off-kilter weirdness to keep it afloat.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 864

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