Monday, June 19, 2023

"Too Many Male Hormones" - Fatal Games (1984)

Fatal Games (1984) is a fine example of the mid-eighties slasher film, employing the clever hook of being set at an athletics academy where fit young people compete to prepare for the Olympics. In the tradition of Graduation Day (1981), the killer uses athletic equipment to commit murder, though the killer in Fatal Games is more limited than the killer in the other film, using only a javelin.

Some reviewers are somewhat uninterested in the quality of Fatal Games. For example, reviewer Phroggy writes, "Good if you want some noise in the background and raises your eyes when you hear a scream. Otherwise, skip it." Reviewer thesar-2 writes, "The movie was extremely hard to watch." And reviewer blurnieghey writes, "The death scenes were lack-luster and cheap."

Read on for the truth about Fatal Games...

The film begins with a title sequence set in a gymnasium at the Falcon Academy of Athletics in Massachusetts, where gymnasts are competing in preparation for something called “the nationals competitions.” A brilliant Shuki Levy song plays as the titles roll—a song so well written I must transcribe some of the words here:

Take it all the way,
Take it to the limit and don’t look back now,
Take it all the way,
No second chance, you’re on your own now,
Winning isn’t everything,
Winning is the only thing,
Take it all the way!

Ain’t no other way,
Being first, that’s all that matters,
Go all the way,
Cause no one else can do it better,
After this and you’ll never fall,
The winner always takes it all,
Take it all the way!

Can you feel the spirit rise?
When the look is in your eyes?
Soon you’re gonna make your dreams come true.
Take it to the limit,
Take it to the limit,
Take it to the limit,
Just give it all you gotta give, yeah!

At a banquet celebrating the gymnasts (before which one of the gymnasts deals with the problem of no napkins by stealing a roll of paper towels from a nearby bathroom), the school’s benefactor Sam Berger gives a long speech. As he speaks (imparting deep thoughts such as, “In a democracy like ours, we know that financial support for athletics must come from private institutions, not government subsidies like that of totalitarian regimes”), the athletes get into a subtle food fight, flinging popcorn and hot dogs at one another at a reckless pace. Eventually, the tomfoolery gets out of hand as a spontaneous tug-of-war breaks out with the athletes pulling a tablecloth back and forth.

The next morning, various athletes shower with each other and make love. At the same time, they discuss an important issue — the school is providing all the athletes with performance-enhancing drugs. “Babe, everybody’s doing it,” says an athlete named Frank. “And you don’t see them dropping dead, do you?”

After a scene in the school’s medical clinic reinforcing the fact that the academy is openly pumping steroids into all the athletes, and a javelin practice scene in which the coach berates a male athlete named Joe (“What are you, a ballet dancer? Keep that up and we’ll have to get you a tutu!”), the film presents two locker room scenes. In the men’s locker room, the men tease each other while showering wearing towels and athletic supporters, while in the women’s locker room, the women shower completely nude. Then, in true slasher film fashion, a female athlete named Nancy goes to an empty weight room to train by herself. In a shockingly sudden shot, she is thrown into the wall, her stomach pierced by a javelin.

Somehow pinned to the wall a few feet above the floor (implying the javelin was thrown from an extremely low angle), Nancy slumps down when the unseen killer removes the javelin.

The next day, one of the athletes, Annie, is told by her massage therapist (played by Sally Kirkland) that the doctor in charge is going to start Annie on hormones because her breasts are developing too quickly.

Later, a female athlete named Sue stays by herself in the steam room until dark, earning herself attention from the javelin killer.

Sue runs nude through the school’s hallways. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, we see her pounding silently on a second-floor window from the inside of the school while the other students are outside, oblivious to her struggles. Sue is javelined to death and her body is stuffed under a locker room bench. In another effective sequence, Annie retrieves books from her locker, nearly touching Sue’s corpse when Annie’s padlock falls to the floor.

Later, Annie confronts her father, who wants her to quit the academy because her grades are falling. She convinces him to continue her enrollment, but he expects her to do better in her classes, something she jokes about with a classmate.

At night, two athletes who happen to be boyfriend and girlfriend race each other across the swimming pool. Oddly, the male athlete removes his swimsuit as he dives into the pool. When they both reach the other side, the woman (who might not be the best actress in the cast) complains, “That’s not fair. You distracted me and you weren’t wearing your suit.” Of course, they start kissing in the pool, unaware that the killer is in the building. Defying audience expectations, however, nothing happens to the couple, and the film cuts to a swim race the next day, with the female swimmer winning her race.

Later, however, there is another murder, as Joe practices throwing the javelin alone on the field, only to be penetrated by a javelin thrown by a figure dressed in black on top of the announcer’s booth in the stands.

In a twist on the usual investigation in a slasher film, we watch the academy’s coaching staff recap the plot during a staff meeting where they, not the police, are investigating the disappearances of their athletes. “Frankly, I’m baffled,” says one of the coaches.

“This is unbelievable,” says the doctor who is head of the coaching staff. “Three of our seven medal winners have completely vanished, and we don’t have the faintest idea where they are?” He threatens to fire the coaches if they can’t keep track of their athletes, ignoring a coach’s suggestion that the steroids they have been giving to the athletes might have something to do with the disappearances. This leads to a scene in a bar with Sally Kirkland and javelin coach Weber complaining that they didn’t use steroids when they almost made it to the Olympics.

Meanwhile, Phil drags Annie to a surprise birthday party for her at a Mexican restaurant that has a guitarist serenade the table before Annie arrives. As they leave the restaurant, Frank quips, “Annie, are you going over to Phil’s tonight to do some acrobatics…on his uneven bar?”

When they do reach Phil’s apartment, he comedically does one hundred pushups on the floor rather than having sex. She tells him she can’t move in with him because her parents would be disappointed. She also says she will help clean up his apartment. Then, somewhat confusingly, the film cuts to Phil taking a phone call on a pay phone outside their school, then explaining to Annie that he has been invited to train with the Philadelphia Phillies at summer training, which will of course force him to be in Philadelphia all summer. (The film’s screenplay is a classic example of the second act hurling complications at its main characters.)

The disappointing news about Phil’s summer plans leads to Annie going to the dark steam room all alone to cry and ponder where her life and boyfriend have taken her. She is blissfully unaware that the masked javelin-thrower is stalking her (briefly, and uneventfully) through the halls of the school.

Shortly later, two of the coaches hear a scream and run to find Annie doubled over on the floor. However, in a shocking twist, instead of having been javelined, Annie appears to be having a reaction to the steroids that have been injected into all the athletes. Coach Sally Kirkland helps Annie back to the coach’s surprisingly spacious house. Coach Kirkland calls the doctor to report the problem and he tells her to keep everything quiet—while, incidentally, he stabs a live beetle with a pin to add to a collection of tortured insects. (Again, the screenplay is a textbook example of using visual symbolism to represent character.)

The next day, Annie and Phil immediately get back together when Phil says he is a runner, not a baseball player, so he will not go to summer camp with the Phillies. Meanwhile, gymnastt Frank breaks his leg due to a bad dismount. He is wheeled on a gurney into a storage room while they wait for an ambulance to arrive. Frank gets a dramatic moment to show his acting skills when a coach says, “Listen, Frank, this is just as bad for us as it is for you.”

“Has anybody ever won with a cast on, coach?” he asks, presumably rhetorically. When his girlfriend Lynn asks if his leg hurts a lot, Frank expresses tearfully, “Hurt? I’ll tell you what hurts. I’m out of the Nationals, that’s what hurts!” Even more tearfully, he encourages Lynn not to come to the hospital with him but to continue working out. “You’re gonna win for both of us.”

Later, a shadowy figure stalks Lynn, who is practicing at night in the empty school’s empty pool. In an inventive technique for a slasher film, the shadowy figure climbs into the pool and sits at the bottom, holding the javelin and waiting for the swimmer to approach. At the right moment, the killer launches upward, stabbing the swimmer with the javelin.

The next day, the coaches gather at the behest of the doctor, who shows them a photo he found in the coaches’ office—a photo showing the top seven athletes at the school with four of them X’ed out (a development perhaps inspired by 1981’s Graduation Day).

Later, Frank tells Phil he is suspicious about the missing students, a group that includes his girlfriend Lynn. The three surviving top athletes comprise only Frank, Phil, and Annie.

Frank, using his crutches due to his broken leg, smashes a window and breaks into the school (calling into question how easy it was for others to enter the deserted school and train in the middle of the night in previous scenes). Frank makes his way through the training facilities until he sees a light in an office turn on. Panicking, he runs back through the facilities and finds another office, where he rifles through files until he finds a sheet of paper important enough to slip into his pocket. Then he breaks through what appears to be a hidden door leading into a basement. After 15 minutes or so of looking around, Frank picks up a crowbar from the ground and smashes the lock on a locker, revealing, shockingly, the dead body of Lynn, along with the bodies of the other murdered athletes.

At that exact moment, the javelin killer bursts into the basement and chases Frank. Also at that exact moment, Annie breaks into the school. Frank is javelined to death in a stairwell, but Annie hears his scream and searches for him. She finds both the body and the killer, resulting in another chase through the halls. Annie is lucky (or, perhaps, protected by the final girl’s air of purity) in that the killer’s javelin tosses miss her, allowing her to hide in another of the school’s dozen or so locker rooms. Confronted by the killer, she receives an injury when the javelin stabs her stomach, but she is rescued by Phil. He carries her to Sally Kirkland’s office (probably doing more harm than good to her injury).

Shockingly, the killer is revealed to the audience to be Coach Kirkland wearing a black raincoat!

In the training room, Coach Kirkland pretends to help Annie, but Annie sees through her ruse when she notices an old newspaper lying on a table with the helpfully expository headline “Sex Change Operation Doesn’t Work” and the subheads “Olympic Champion Disqualified” and, least grammatically of all, “Diane Paine, Javelin Winner, Tests Showed Too Many Male Hormones.”

Annie, no longer in pain, jumps off a gurney and runs through the halls, chased by Coach Kirkland and her deadly javelin. Coach Kirkland (whose voice is now considerably deeper) yells for Annie to show herself. “I don’t want to disqualify you, but that’s what I’m going to have to do! ‘He’ must disqualify anyone who might ever make it!” she says, revealing her somewhat confusing motivation for killing the seven champions.

In the end, Coach Kirkland falls off a painter’s scaffold and her abdomen is bizarrely impaled on a trophy depicting a victorious angel. The film simply ends with this image frozen as the credits roll, accompanied by the catchy main title song.

It must be acknowledged that the gender-switching twist revealing the killer's identity in Fatal Games is distasteful, not to mention unconvincing. Perhaps this is the first or even only slasher film in which the killer is revealed to be insane due in part to their disregard of gender norms? Or perhaps not. Though I have viewed many slasher films, I don't recall any of them bringing gender issues, so I will discard this line of thought as unproductive.

However one views the film's stance on gender, it is, as mentioned in my review, almost textbook-perfect in its adherence to several aspects of the slasher film's timeless appeal. In addition to the quality of its screenplay, the film's balance of story, nudity, and violence is the Platonic ideal of the mid-eighties slasher film. In the beginning, there is an early murder surrounded by various sequences displaying female nudity. In the middle, the story kicks in and the audience is captivated by the struggles of Annie and Phil to both stay alive and maintain their sometimes-rocky relationship. And in the end, more violence returns until the climactic chase, which ends with a final twist and an ironic comeuppance (i.e., gory death) for the killer. While some might like other slasher films, nobody in their right mind could argue that Fatal Games is not an archetypal example of the subgenre.