Monday, March 27, 2017

"You Got Nose Trouble?" - The Game (1984)

The Game (1984), also known as The Cold, is an exhilarating odyssey through the mind of Wisconsin’s Bill Rebane, who cut his directorial teeth on films such as Monster-A-Go-Go and The Giant Spider Invasion before creating the cryptic masterpiece we are considering today.

Unsurprisingly, the critics of your universe are not on board with The Game. On IMDB, Clint Walker, presumably not the Killdeer star, writes, “The Game still has that feel of the producers just making a movie tailored to fit whatever props and settings they had at their disposal.” Reviewer Coventry asserts that this film includes “…retarded plot twists, the dumbest dialogs ever and a total lack of excitement.” Further, reviewer irishjenny96 writes, “What's really strange is that towards the end of the movie it turns into like a 5 minute western, and at the end, the twists, of which their were several, don't make sense with the rest of the movie.” The film does not in fact turn into a western, and I can only assume irishjenny96 is delusional.

In order to counter such libelous reviews, I will describe this twisting masterwork in detail below.

The Game's opening titles are shown in charming compositions where the names are displayed on board games.

A narrator talks about a group of millionaires who are bored with traditional games. As we watch men riding in expensive cars, the narrator tells us that these millionaires have devised a new game which involves recruiting ordinary players who will obey their demands.

The millionaires gather in a hotel dining room at the Northernaire resort to discuss the players they have recruited. They know the game will be fun this year. One of them gets a philosophical look on his face and says, "You know, it never fails to amaze me what some people will do for a million dollars." His friend laughs maniacally.

We then watch the three millionaires and their recruits disco dancing, with the millionaires groping and ogling the younger participants. This disco sequence lasts for several minutes, strengthening the film's political perspective that millionaires are bad, exploitive people.

After the disco dancing, the millionaires sit the participants down at a table to explain their game. The female millionaire is dressed in a silky blue dress with a large gold necklace, and she smokes using a cigarette holder. The male millionaires are dressed more casually, one in a sweater vest and plaid shirt and the other in a gray fisherman’s sweater.

"We shall be playing a game, simply called...'the game.'" The participants are impressed that the prize will be one million dollars. Only the survivor will receive the prize. The survivor is the last participant remaining on the resort grounds by the end of the game.

"And just how do we play this game?" asks one of the women.

"Just look into your soul, my dear," says a millionaire, and suddenly there is a tarantula on the table. The woman screams.

One of the participants kills the spider and the millionaires continue to explain the rules. However, the only rule they explain is that the game will begin tomorrow. Excusing himself, one of the millionaires says, "Good night, and pleasant...screams." All three of them laugh maniacally as they depart.

At night, one of the two women participants decides to familiarize herself with the layout of the resort by changing into a bikini and swimming in the indoor pool. We watch her swim for several minutes, and then we see that there is a visitor in the pool.

Despite the implausibility of a shark fin appearing in an indoor swimming pool, the woman is terrified. Screaming and flailing, she makes it out of the pool in time for the other participants to arrive, summoned by the noise. "There's a shark! In the pool!" she says.

"You've gotta be kidding," says one of the men.

"That's right," she retorts. "A shark!"

With the three men and two women together at poolside, the millionaire's voices come over a speaker, laughing maniacally yet again and taunting the participants that they shouldn't let this practical joke spoil their fun in the pool.

The next day, the participants spend time relaxing and informing us of their backstories. There is a couple who sing and play guitar in a band, along with two men who are also in the band. A white-haired man, John, and a red-haired woman, Pam, walk through the grounds of the resort, discussing their occupations and need for money. The resort includes some decrepit, abandoned houses. "Looks like a good spot to go ghost hunting," says John as he forces open a window to look inside. When they leave the house, the camera moves up to the second story; behind a window, a creepy man gapes suspiciously at the interlopers.

Meanwhile, back in the hotel area, Shelley, one of the participants, debates whether to change her dress. Suddenly, she hears something at her door. The soundtrack makes excellent use of a gong to heighten the suspense. She moves toward the door, opens it...and another of the game's participants, mustachioed and tank-topped Joe, hands her a note.

She reads the note: "The game has begun."

A mysterious, cold fog begins to move through the hotel, accompanied by theremin sound effects.

The participants are surprised when mysterious things begin to occur, despite the fact that they know the game involves scaring people away from the resort. The couple in the band, Ronnie and Randy Sue, are separated when Ronnie disappears, leaving behind only his beloved red bandana. Mustachioed, tank-topped Joe reveals he spent time in prison, in solitary confinement. The creepy man from the abandoned house, who wears vampire makeup, spies on the participants as they sit around the fireplace.

Most worrying of all, the television shows a masked figure suggesting the participants will be eliminated permanently. The figure's speech is accompanied by the image of the missing Ronnie dangling from a hangman's noose, apparently dead! Director Bill Rebane ratchets up the suspense at this point, as he lets us know the characters had no idea they signed up for such a dangerous game.

At breakfast, Joe doesn't believe Ronnie is dead. "I bet they've got a control room somewhere all full of electronic gadgets and gimmicks. For manufacturing those illusions. I bet they've even got the computer games rigged. No wonder I couldn't win."

At night, following a mysterious note that is apparently from the missing Ronnie, one of the participants takes a pistol and goes to the old lodge, a euphemism for one of the abandoned houses. We watch as the man enters the "lodge." Then we hear him say, "Ouch" and see him fall into a jail cell complete with a mattress and an old skeleton.

Back at the hotel bar, white-haired John discusses the situation with two of the women. The discussion turns to the nature of reality, after the obligatory Bela Lugosi impression, as they debate whether it really was Ronnie's hanging body on TV. John is skeptical. About their millionaire hosts, he says, "I'm sure our friends are playing with some pretty sophisticated gimmicks."

Meanwhile, bearded J.D. and singer Randy Sue head outside to explore the abandoned  lodge, where they hope to find their bandmate Aaron. Unbeknownst to them, Aaron is in the cell below the lodge, screaming at the seemingly playful rats that inhabit the prison.

While J.D. and Randy Sue investigate, Shelley and Joe have a tryst in the sauna, scored to music that sounds like a slowed down version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." She is completely nude while he keeps his white briefs on. "Is it safe," Shelley asks. "Of course it's safe," he says. "I had a vasectomy." After their tryst, the two become trapped in the sauna, but they are quickly released when the other participants arrive.

The investigation of J.D. and Randy Sue becomes terrifying when a disembodied head flies them at inside the dilapidated lodge.

As they run, effects from a mid-budget spook house assault them: a hanged dummy, red cobwebs, some kind of small birds, and finally some fog creeping across a pile of white bandages on the floor. These effects serve to reduce J.D. and Randy Sue to a whimpering state of terror.

The next morning, we view the film's most playful scene, as Joe finds a severed head prop in the old lodge. He and the remaining women play football with the head.

But everything is not fun and games. John has been snooping in the unlocked offices of the resort hotel. The others try to find out what John is up to, and he accuses them of having "nose trouble," perhaps a pithy way of warning them not to get too nosy. John eventually hints at his suspicion: "Maybe it isn't a game." He reveals that he found a loaded pistol and a noose with blood stains at the old lodge.

"Games aren't played with loaded guns," John says.

"What are they played with?" asks Shelley. Her question goes unanswered.

Linda, frightened by John's suspicions, goes to her room to relax. She watches a horror host on TV introduce a film called The Great Spider Invasion, possibly a reference to The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), a film directed by this film's director, Bill Rebane, though it seems curious the name is incorrect. The camera pans to the dresser, where, with suitable irony, a tarantula sits.

Linda falls asleep immediately as Mr. Rebane's earlier film begins. We watch a bulge moving under the sheets near her sleeping body. The filmmakers pull a clever twist here: While the audience believes Linda is being menaced by a tarantula, there is actually some kind of monster head under the sheets. It rips through the sheets and terrifies Linda--and the audience!


The stakes are raised even higher in the next scene, as the millionaires themselves, wearing scary masks, invade Shelley's room and tie her to a chair. They force her into a game of Russian Roulette. "This is a game, right?" she asks, recognizing them. She survives the Russian Roulette and the millionaires depart, chanting "Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to work we go."

The film's perspective changes from that of the participants to that of the millionaires. They remove their masks and retreat to their hideout, where they watch the rooms on closed-circuit TV. They hear a gunshot and tune into one of the rooms, where it appears that Shelley is dead. They hurry to check it out.

Meanwhile, occurrences continue to occur. One woman goes swimming alone, only to find herself sharing the pool with a live snake. A skeletal puppet hangs in a closet. Mysteriously, Shelley has an out-of-body experience.

John and Pam enter Shelley's room to find real blood on the floor. John finally explains why he has been snooping around so much. He is a police detective. "I'll tell you one thing. This is no game. It's real."

As if to prove the point, Joe finds Shelley's body in the sauna. There is a bullet hole in her temple.

John explains further that he has traced a mental patient to this resort, where the patient was working as a janitor after his release. The man disappeared one year ago. John believes the mental patient could have been a casualty of last year's game.

Joe is angry at the implication that the millionaires killed Shelley. "Whoever is responsible for this has called the tune. But I'm the piper, and by God I'm gonna make them pay for it. Permanently!"

They infer that the millionaires must be holed up in the basement of the hotel, so they go downstairs and break down a door. They find the millionaires singing "Jimmy Cracked Corn" at a card table. Then the millionaires question the meaning of "Jimmy Cracked Corn."

Joe shoots one of the millionaires and runs away. John grabs a shotgun and chases after Joe, who is now a murderer. There follows an extended chase across the grounds of the resort and into the picturesque forest.

Joe, the murderer, subdues John, the police detective. Joe fires the pistol twice. We hear the gunshots, but for some reason Joe looks down at the gun as though it did not fire, and John is unharmed. John rushes Joe and they fight, but they are interrupted by the mysterious man who has been stalking everyone. The mystery man takes off his rubber Bela Lugosi mask. "Some decorum, please," he says. "After all, this is only a game."

John believes the mystery man is Felix Kramer, the mental patient who disappeared, but the man reveals that there is no Felix Kramer. Everything was a ruse to get John and the others to the resort to play the game.

The game is over. Everyone reconvenes at the resort for explanations.

The millionaires reveal that everyone is still alive. The participants who disappeared were moved to a hotel somewhere else and given $50,000. The millionaires decide to give $1 million to each of the survivors because the game was so enjoyable. The participants are escorted out of the resort.

But there is one final twist. The millionaires sit at their table singing while the cold fog creeps through the resort. The millionaires shiver. "Whose game is this?" asks the woman.

As the fog moves in, they run through the halls of the resort, accompanied by sound effects of wolves howling and babies crying. Trapped in the exercise room, they turn and see the final frightening image: a tall white ghost!

There is another sting as well. When John, Joe, and Pam are dropped off at the remote hotel, the other participants are not there. Perhaps they were actually imprisoned and/or killed.

We then see the fates of the millionaires, frozen in the resort.

The narrator attempts to sum up the story in rhyme:

"Quite confusing is this story
As our tale comes to a close,
And our trio seem the victims
Of the fearsome game they chose."

I will not describe the final shot of the film, however, because it reveals yet another twist that should be seen to be believed. And also because it makes absolutely no sense.

One of The Game’s strengths is its ability to constantly keep the audience on its collective toes. In some parts of the narrative, it is difficult to understand whether the film is being darkly comic or should be taken seriously. Solemn events such as murder and imprisonment occur, but these are interspersed with upbeat events such as playing football with a served head and swimming with a clearly phony shark fin.

The musical score heightens the admirable clashing of tones. Even when the mood is dark and the events transpiring onscreen are serious, the music bounces along with the pace of a comical staged melodrama complete with a tinkling ragtime piano.

Our unease is further accelerated by our inability to understand what is a real threat and what is not. A good example is the cold fog that chases the participants, and later the millionaires, through the halls of the resort. At first, we find it amusing that the characters seem to feel that the most frightening thing in the world is the mist produced by dry ice. In the end, however, we see that the millionaires have been killed and frozen somehow by an icy, fog-shrouded ghost. Was the fog in fact as dangerous as the characters appeared to believe? Or is its presence merely another comical twist in the playing of the game?

It is likely that only the great Bill Rebane knows for certain.