[review by JA Kerswell]
The students at the Falcon Academy are just dying to get first place. Filmed in late 1982 as THE KILLING TOUCH (and released in some territories under that title), FATAL GAMES failed to register much in its native United States, but its belated release to video in 1984 drummed up some interest during the Los Angeles Olympics of that year. Certainly not a top-tier slasher, Michael Elliott's film suffers from flat direction, stilted performances, repetitive kills and some dodgy sexual politics. Still, any film that has a javelin-wielding killer stalking a college can't be all bad. Can it?
The students at the Academy are being prepped for the Nationals ahead of qualifying for the Olympics. Annie (Lynn Banashek) has trouble persuading her father that she should remain in college. She also has to continually rebuff the amorous advances of her boyfriend Phil (Sean Masterson) and the unwanted attention of college nurse Diane (Sally Kirkland), who tries to cop a feel during a massage session. When not molesting students, Diane expresses concern about the medication and steroids being dolled out, but this falls on deaf ears of the college head honchos.
However, it's not just experimental drugs and wandering hands that the students at The Falcon Academy have to worry about. Someone in a hooded tracksuit and carrying a sharp javelin is intent on shish-kebabing the competition down to size. Will there be anyone left alive to represent the United States at the Olympics?
FATAL GAMES is often a frustrating experience. The slasher action is handled pretty well on the whole, but there just isn't enough of it - especially in the first half of the movie. The large cast - many of whom were presumably hired for their sports skills over their acting ability - try their best but are saddled with some really clunky dialogue. Clearly hedging his bets, Elliot front-loads the film with some ANIMAL HOUSE-style hijinks as the students prank each other or break into impromptu food fights or tug-of-war. Too much time is spent on character-building for a cast with little distinctive character. It doesn't help that - putting it politely - Banashek is no Jamie Lee Curtis. Doing a little better are Sally Kirkland and Spice Williams-Crosby, as the sympathetic Coach Drew.
Elliot packs the film with copious amounts of nudity, as FATAL GAMES is peppered with locker room sequences. Although, somewhat hilariously, the male nudity is more than a little coy - with one athlete wearing his jockstrap in the shower! The sight of the javelin-wielding killer is an arresting vision; often backlit as if auditioning for a Bonnie Tyler video. However, the kills - all with the javelin - are pretty samey. Although the murderer does get points for perseverance when they don scuba gear and wait at the bottom of a swimming pool on the off chance some nubile co-ed is going to take a late-night swim. Also, more points for what would surely be an Olympic-winning throw across a sports field that impales a kneeling teen.
[spoilers follow so skip this paragraph if you want to avoid them] It's always a little tricky talking about problematic elements in Golden Age slasher movies. After all, it doesn't pay to be too sensitive when discussing movies that revel in t&a and teen death. However, the way the film portrays its transexual and lesbian characters is regressive whichever way you look at it. Even Variety's review from 1984 drew attention to this. Whilst she's portrayed as likeable, Williams-Crosby's Coach Drew is abusing her position by sleeping with one of her students. Kirkland's college nurse - is painted as being predatory in one scene, too. She is also revealed to be transexual and the inference is that her transsexuality and failed athletic career have driven her to kill as it is revealed that she is the javelin-wielding killer. In reality, not much thought or intention probably went into this bar its echoes of Norman/Norma Bates in Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) or William Castle's HOMICIDAL (1961). Of course, it is all too silly to be taken seriously, but never quite reaches the heights of true camp that might have made it a bit more palatable. If anything, the ending is something of a bummer as Diane falls to her death and - in an ironic take - is impaled on a statuette. [end of spoilers]
In a syndicated interview from April 1983, former mime artist Michael Elliot was described as a "frugal producer". He said the best way to turn a profit with a million-dollar budget was with either a horror pic or an action/adventure. Hence why he chose to direct the movie. Still then describing it as THE KILLING TOUCH, Elliot said: "If I had more money, I could probably make a better movie. But not much better. If I had twice as much money to spend, it wouldn't be twice as good a movie." The production was rushed with just five weeks shooting time. Elliot - who also appears in the film as Dr. Jordine - said he would have preferred the luxury of eight weeks. FATAL GAMES was his sole directorial credit.
As Impact Films, Elliot co-wrote and produced the movie with Rafael Bunel, son of famed surrealist Luis Brunel, and Christopher Mankiewicz, son of famous Hollywood director Joseph Mankiewicz (probably best remembered for directing Bette Davies in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)). Mankiewicz also appeared as Coach Jack Webber in the film. Press reports said somewhat ambiguously that the funding for the movie was coming from Mexico. The film was followed by the crime drama TO KILL A STRANGER (1984), which was filmed in Mexico and starred Donald Pleasence and Aldo Ray.
A full-page advert appeared in Variety on March 8, 1983, saying that the film was in post-production under the title THE KILLING TOUCH - and that US and World Wide distribution rights were still available. The advertorial ballyhoo describes it as: "THE UNOFFICIAL TERROR OF THE 1984 GAMES". Elliot and the other producers hoped the film would get picked up by a major studio for release - indeed, the film had been made for that very purpose. Something that had made a killing for the likes of Sean S. Cunningham when Paramount bought the domestic distribution rights to FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) - and Warner Bros the international ones. However, things were very different by 1983 and the film found itself amongst a glut of slasher projects struggling to find distribution. Again in July of 1984, Variety's review of its VHS release noted: "Pic was lensed in 1982 under the title "The Killing Touch", but failed, as have so many fright films of late, to achieve major theatrical distribution, going directly to home video instead." Variety called FATAL GAMES: "... a misguided, undernourished horror film, keyed in topically to the Olympics but failing to do much with the premise." However, there is some confusion as to whether FATAL GAMES got any theatrical distribution in the US, as a 1-sheet poster for the film under that title was produced (I had one). The fact that it used its latter, better-known title suggests that the poster would have been produced in 1984 and it's certainly possible a few theatrical dates happened in an effort to promote sales of videocassettes to distributors. A trailer was also produced that references THE KILLING TOUCH title throughout but somewhat awkwardly features the written title FATAL GAMES.
FATAL GAMES fared slightly better abroad getting some theatrical distribution in Europe. The BBFC's website lists the film getting a UK cinema release after getting an 18 certificate in early 1984 under its previous title - although I've never seen a poster to confirm this release ever actually happened. It was released on video in the UK on the Merlin label in August of that year. For years, the Dutch VHS release under the title OLYMPIC NIGHTMARE was rumoured to be a longer, gorier cut. However, given that the film's gore effects generally just stretch to the bloody aftermath of the javelin kills this may not be the case. Media Home Entertainment released it in 1984 on VHS in the USA.
There is a lack of clarity as to who provided the jackhammer'esque soundtrack to the film. In January 1983, a press report said that the film was in post-production and John Serry Jr had been hired to compose the score. Serry is missing from the credits, but the infectiously peppy title song 'Take It All the Way' is listed as being by then-husband and wife duo Shuki Levy and Deborah Shelton. Shelton had some quasi-slasher movie infamy of her own as the object of desire in Brian De Palma's BODY DOUBLE (1984).
Lynn Banashek sadly fails to make much of an impression in the lead - apart from her remarkably solid hair-do. Her only other film role was as Cheerleader #3 in a loose biographical adaptation of Michael Landon's college athletics career in SAM'S SON (1984). Banashek refused to do nudity in FATAL GAMES and, during a massage scene, is replaced by Linnea Quigley (something distractingly easy to spot due to their very different hairstyles!). She seemingly vanished from acting after this. Sally Kirkland didn't have much luck in early 80s slashers either, as she also appeared as an ill-fated 'hooker' in DOUBLE EXPOSURE (1982). Kirkland gave some press quotes about FATAL GAMES, where she - somewhat unconvincingly - said she preferred to be in low-budget movies such as this rather than high-budget prestige projects such as THE STING (1973). Eagle-eyed viewers might spot THE BOOGEY MAN's (1980) Nicholas Love, in a sleepy-eyed performance as a soon-to-be impaled track-and-field star. Michael O'Leary, as Frank, who spends the closing minutes of FATAL GAMES hobbling away from the killer on crutches, returned to the slasher movie in 2022 with an appearance in HALLOWEEN ENDS (2022). Melissa Prophet, as a rather unconvincingly skinny weight-lifter, had appeared in the quasi-slasher TIME WALKER (1982), before appearing in high-profile movies including GOODFELLAS (1990) and CASINO (1995). Brinke Stevens - who was the first victim in SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982) - also appeared uncredited as nude 'shower girl'.
Truth be told, I want to like FATAL GAMES more than I actually do. I purposely didn't read the review this is updating until I'd written this. That review was written probably over 20 years ago. The elements are all there for a solid early 80s slasher: a distinctive killer and a bevvy of victims, but the film just fails to get off the starting blocks. Although, I do like it a bit better than I did way back when. FATAL GAMES is often compared to GRADUATION DAY (1981). That film's healthy profit at the box office very possibly inspired Elliot to make his movie. Both films feature a killer targetting athletes, but whilst GRADUATION DAY has its own problems, it is the more successful of the two. It has more inventive kills and a sense of playfulness that's often missing from FATAL GAMES. Still, if you're a fan of slashers from the Golden Age it is still one you should definitely tick off your bucket list.
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female: 4 / male: 2
2) Female impaled on a javelin
3) Male impaled on a javelin
4) Female impaled on a javelin
5) Male gets a javelin in the back
6) Female impaled on sports trophy