Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fatal Games (1984)

The students at the Falcon Academy of Athletics in Massachusetts strive their little hearts out to be the very best in their chosen disciplines.  However, once they all make it to “The Nationals” (because, hey, they’re each the very best in their chosen disciplines), they start dropping like flies when a mad javelin thrower starts picking them off, one by one.

So, that’s basically Michael Elliott’s Fatal Games (aka Olympic Nightmare aka The Killing Touch), and it’s a film about drive and obsession.  The kids in the film are compelled to push themselves further every day, and while they don’t choose the augmentation of their regimens, they go along with it to the point that they become taken over by the desires of the adults in their lives.  The students begin to reflect the “winning is everything” mentality of guys like Coach Webber (Christopher Mankiewicz).  Before they made “The Nationals,” the kids behaved like just that: kids.  At the celebration dinner which opens the film, the students surreptitiously throw food at each other, and wind up playing tug of war with the tablecloth while some moneyed windbag drones on about how proud of them he is.  After this celebration, the kids become much more focused on exceeding their limits.  For example, Nancy (Melissa Prophet) turns down an offer to go out and party in order to pump iron.  Joe (Nicholas Love), also turns them down, at least in part because he is essentially a self-loathing rage-o-holic, and the film allows us to believe that he became this way through his compulsion to do better at javelin tossing.  He remains out on the field, throwing pointed sticks and visibly berating himself for his deficiencies.  Even Frank (Michael O’Leary), the class quasi-clown, develops this neurosis.  After injuring his leg, he tells the others to keep practicing in a scene reminiscent of the classic, clichéd War film scenario where the injured soldier implores his brothers-in-arms to “go on without me.”  The yearning to be number one is toxic for these young adults, something which rings very true, considering that there are far too many real life stories of this ilk out there.

Likewise, in the quest for physical/athletic perfection, there is the notion of “the dream” (as in “living…”).  That said, these dreams appear more than anything else to be those of the adults who live vicariously through the kids who may achieve the goals they themselves couldn’t reach.  Coach Webber is the Type A guy who barks at the students for their flaws and then comforts them quickly afterward, like a pimp working one of his girls.  In private, he pisses and moans about “the kids today” lacking the passion that they had back when he was a little nipper, et cetera, et cetera.  Dr. Jordine (played by the director) essentially believes in juicing in order “to push [the students’] athletic potential to their limits.”  The kids gather for their regularly scheduled medical appointments to not only get check-ups but also to receive their new experimental drug diets (is it any wonder, then, that Joe is so tense?).  Sweet girl-next-door Annie (Lynn Banashek) is put on drugs in order to stop her breasts from growing.  They physically retard a natural process for the sake of gymnastics, but she goes along with it because adults know best, and she wants to make them happy.  And while Nurse Diane (Sally Kirkland) voices her disapproval (kind of quietly, all things considered) of Jordine’s approach, she goes along with it, as well.  Phil’s (Sean Masterson) dad gets Phil a tryout with a professional baseball club (Phil is a Track and Field guy).  This isn’t about Phil’s dream to play for the Yankees or any other team.  It’s about his father’s desire to fit Phil into the mold he has carved out for his son.  The adults in Fatal Games are, it could be argued, more dangerous to the kids than the mad javelin chucker.  At least with a javelin through your torso, it’s all over; you’re dead.  It’s the long, slow, painful process of the adults eroding these youths’ wills and self-esteem that is infinitely more damaging than the killer.

To call this a Slasher film is a bit misleading.  Yes, there is an unknown killer taking out the students in mildly interesting sequences.  Yes, there is a final girl who refuses to have sex with her beau before marriage (after going over to his place, he does push-ups, which is funny since, one, it reinforces the idea that these youngsters are more obsessed with their physiques than with the normal drives of young adults, and two, he seems perfectly okay with not getting laid even though that was the whole point of his relentless push to get this girl over to his pad [I would argue this ties in with the first point, as well]).  Yes, there is a deep red herring, who you know isn’t the killer because that would be entirely too obvious (go on and guess who it is).  Yes, everyone in this film wanders around dark buildings without even thinking of turning on a fucking light, positively begging to get speared.  Yes, it has characters too stupid to call the police when students go missing.  Yes, it has a climactic reveal as dumb and confusing as it is intriguing.  But the kills are almost afterthoughts in this film.  They just pop up every now and then in order to fill their quota and then go away.  The film is much more interested in the lives of the kids and the abusive, masochistic relationship they have with the adults in their lives.  But even this plays like flat, bad soap opera-esque melodrama.  It’s all superficial character sketches and attempts at tension in order to build sympathy for the victims which, sadly, just don’t work.  The film plays largely like an episode of Kids, Incorporated in terms of how these are rote scenarios for rote characters in between mini-set pieces that still don’t fully satisfy as they should, because, with the exception of one, the kill scenes are filmed in the most unimaginative ways possible.  The filmmakers also could have improved Fatal Games greatly with a stronger commitment to the story they were telling and developing their characters beyond being merely snapshots from a high school yearbook.  Fatal Games is a film that should have profited (ironically) from the boundary-pushing attitude of its characters.  It just doesn’t have the Eye of the Tiger.

MVT:  The primary conceit of the destructive influence of adults and the cult of physique/perfection on young athletes is a rich vein to mine.  The film only digs down a few inches, unfortunately.

Make or Break:  The swimming pool scene is actually pretty good, and is even vaguely reminiscent of the “white bathing suit” scene from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  None of the film’s remainder lives up to this.

Score:  4/10     

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