B-Movie Geek

Fatal Games

Synopsis: The student-athletes of the Falcon Academy of Athletics are getting ready to compete in the Nationals. Their coaches are tough, but these talented youngsters are training hard. They're all hoping that one day they'll be good enough to compete at the Olympics. As part of their training regime, they have regular check ups with the Academy physician... and he's got each of them on a special supplement recipe of his own design. It isn't long before the aspiring youths are being killed off one by one by a javelin-wielding madman. Will any of the athletes outrun, outwit, and outlast the killer? It's the ultimate competition, and there can be only one winner.

Tag Line: The Second Prize is Death!

Annie Rivers is a teenage gymnast with a heart of gold. She's struggling with her studies, and her father is understandably encouraging her to spend a little less time training in the gym. She's dedicated to the idea of winning at the Nationals and making her way to the Olympics though, a goal that she feels like her entire life has been leading towards. She's your typical final girl, a pure of motives type of gal, and is played admirably by actress Lynn Banashek. Fatal Games is the only leading role for Banashek, who appeared in one other movie also released in 1984 (Sam's Son, credited as an unnamed cheerleader). Outside of these, Banashek never appeared in any other films.

Annie is supported in her endeavors by her boyfriend, Phil, played by now-veteran actor and writer Sean Masterson. This was very near to the beginning of Masterson's film career, with Fatal Games being his third professional acting credit, and his first role in a feature film. Together, Annie and Phil try to keep each other motivated and focused on their training, all the while navigating the typical stresses of a young, romantic relationship.

The rest of the characters consist of several other student athletes, all of which have similar desires and goals as Annie and Phil. Additionally, there are two coaches, a medical doctor, and his nurse. Coach Weber (Christopher Mankiewicz) is your typical hard-nosed athletics instructor, pushing the students to train harder and harder. Meanwhile, Coach Drew (Spice Williams-Crosby) is having an inappropriate relationship with one of her female swimming protégés. Mystery begins to seep into the film's proceedings when it becomes clear that Dr. Jordine (Michael Elliot) is doing more than simply practicing medicine. He seems to be performing some sort of research into maximizing human performance through the use of supplements, steroids, hormones... and who knows what else? Nurse Diane seems very concerned for the athletes' well-being, and tries to convince the doctor to end his research. It isn't long after this basic plot set up that the killings begin. A hooded figure begins stalking the halls and fields of Falcon Academy, killing off our young cast with their themed weapon of choice - a javelin!

Horrid History

The movie was originally filmed under the title The Killing Touch, and it's unclear whether the film ever saw wide release in theaters. The title was changed to Fatal Games before its release on home video by Impact Films in 1984, and the cast was never made aware of the change. Famously, Spice Williams-Crosby (Coach Drew) was asked by a fan about her experience filming Fatal Games, and she denied having ever been in a film with that title (IMDB - Trivia).

In 1987, Fatal Games was re-released on VHS by Media Home Entertainment, the same company that was responsible for the original home releases of countless horror classics like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film has never appeared on DVD or Blu-ray, and, as of early 2021, the most accessible versions of the film are a low resolution copies hosted on YouTube and The Internet Archive (archive.org). This movie print on the Internet Archive actually bears one of the alternative titles for the film, Olympic Nightmare, indicating that this may be the Netherlands release of the film which is purported to be 2 minutes longer than the North American cut.

Nancy's Death - Fatal Games - B-Movie Geek
Nancy's Death - Fatal Games

Diane is played by Sally Kirkland, who gives the strongest performance in the film. She's got a few eye-rolling takes, but she's definitely trying. Kirkland would go on to have long and successful movie career. The fact that Media Home Entertainment re-released Fatal Games on VHS in 1987 was likely due to Kirkland, as this was the same year that she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Anna.

Coach Drew, the female swimming coach, is played by Spice Williams-Crosby. Although this was early in her career, Spice Williams-Crosby would go on to have a very successful career in movies, working both as an actress and as a stunt woman. Athletic and muscular in stature, Williams-Crosby would describe the types of roles she was typically cast in as "warrior women." She would go one to appear in other genre favorites, movies like The Lost Boys, The Guyver, and Arachnophobia.

The other coach is played by Christopher Mankiewicz, one of the writers of the film. The athletic team's doctor is played by the film's director, Michael Elliot, whose only other credit listed on IMDB is for a rewrite of the script for To Kill a Stranger. While Fatal Games is by no means a masterpiece of the genre, I thought that it was serviceable enough overall. As such, I was mildly disappointed to find that Elliot only directed this one film. As I was reading up on Fatal Games, I did find references to at least one other film that Elliot was said to have directed. The film in question is a 1992 Roger Corman production called The Quake and which was written about in Psychotronic magazine (Issue 16, page 14). You can see the magazine clipping below.

The Quake - Psychotronic Issue 16 Page 14 - B-Movie Geek
Psychotronic, Issue 16, Page 14

Unfortunately, Psychotronic's attribution seems to simply be a case of mistaken identity. On IMDB, Roger Corman is listed as the executive producer of a 1992 film called Quake, but the director is Louis Morneau. Morneau is also listed one of the film's producers, in addition to a person named Mike Elliot. However, this Mike Elliot is not the same person as Michael Elliot, who directed Fatal Games. It seems like whoever was writing for Psychotronic saw the name and made an assumption that isn't true. Sadly, it does seem as though Michael Elliot only ever directed this one film.

Blood, Breast & Beast

As a slasher film, Fatal Games suffers from a lack of creativity in its murders. It's a superficial consideration, sure, but it's important. Horror movie fans come to these films to see how the characters are going to die. The killer itself is a simple design, a person clothed in striped sweat pants and a hoodie. The athletic-wear is appropriate given the theme, but comes off a bit too simplistic.Further, since the Falcon Academy Killer uses no weapons other than the javelin throughout the film, the kills comes off as repetitive and unimaginative. Many sequences are also filmed in near-total darkness, obscuring whatever practical effects the filmmakers had designed. Overall, Fatal Games cannot be recommended based on its special effects.

Sue's Death - Fatal Games - B-Movie Geek
Sue's Death (Maybe?!) - Fatal Games

That's not to say that the sequences around the murders are dull. To the contrary, some of these set pieces are rather well done. One highlight features a fully nude girl, Sue, being chased from the sauna and then running throughout the halls of the school. The scene is more tasteful than it sounds, as darkness again shrouds the details of her form. Sue eventually makes her way to a classroom on the second floor, and the camera perspective switches to her friends out in the parking lot. We see Sue in the background, banging on the windows frantically, but unable to be heard by her potential saviors. Another fun scene involves a swimmer training in the pool during an after hours session. The killer is shown underwater with a scuba tank, biding their time as the athlete swims several laps, tiring themselves out. When the moment is right, the killer makes short work of them with the sharp, business-end of their implement of destruction. While fun, I couldn't help but wonder - shouldn't the pool been stained with blood the next morning?

Almost every article about Fatal Games, including its Wikipedia page, makes the claim that this movie "shares many of its plot points with an earlier slasher film, Graduation Day (1981)." Having watched both, I think the similarities are mostly superficial. Both films feature a group of student athletes being killed off, and the killer crossing off the victims on a group photo. Both movies begin with montages of sporting events, but that's about where the similarities end. The cast of Graduation Day are much more clearly portrayed as a High School athletics team, whereas the characters in Fatal Games seemed much more like future Olympians in training. Graduation Day also does a better job of varying the methods of murder employed by the killer, and is a better polished film overall.

More interesting to me, though, is that the casts of both Graduation Day and Fatal Games feature the iconic scream queen Linnea Quigley. While Quigley has a speaking role in Graduation Day, she only appears in Fatal Games as a nude body-double for lead actress Lynn Banashek. If you watch the massage therapy scene carefully, you'll note that Annie's face is only shown from a frontal view, and that the rest of her body cannot be seen in these shots. The legs and buttocks on display belong to Ms. Quigley, whose credited role is identified only as an unnamed "Athlete."

Linnea Quigley - Fatal Games - B-Movie Geek
Linnea Quigley - Fatal Games

There's actually a surprising amount of nudity in this film, but I suppose that makes sense when you can casually set scenes in saunas and locker rooms. Interestingly, Quigley is not the only well-known 1980's Scream Queen to appear in Fatal Games. Brinke Stevens also appears in the film in an uncredited, nonspeaking role. Stevens is another glorified extra, appearing as one of the girls showering in the background of one of the locker room scenes. You'd be hard pressed to recognize that it is her, but Stevens can be seen around the 14 minute mark of the movie. She's the one showering with a blue towel on her head in the background of the scene between Annie and Nancy.

Brinke Steves - Fatal Games - B-Movie Geek
Brinke Stevens - Fatal Games

A quote from Brinke Stevens on Fatal Games:

"I only worked one day on a shower scene here. I believe it was an erotic thriller about a serial killer at the Olympic games. I've never seen this film myself, and I didn't even know its title until I read it in "The Bare Facts Video Guide"."

Focus, Issue 2, Draculina Publishing

That's two actresses from the film that didn't know its title. Not a great record!

Problematic Plotting

Fatal Games should probably be better remembered for at least two reasons, both of which may be controversial by today's cultural standards. First, the film depicts a romantic lesbian relationship between Coach Drew and her student Shelley. The possibility that Shelley is a minor is concerning, but since her age is never made clear I'll give the benefit of the doubt and mark that one as a non-issue.

More concerning is the power dynamic that exists between coach and student. This quietly manifests during a tense, personal scene between the two characters. Drew has just returned from her morning jog, revealing Shelley laying in her bed, implied nude beneath the covers. The scene comes the morning after Shelley has failed to qualify for the Nationals. Shelley is disappointed in herself and is questioning her commitment to Drew. The young girl was depending on her coach to give her the training that she needed to be ready, and she feels as though Drew has failed her. Some of this may be my own interpretation, but you can almost see the wheels turning behind Shelley's eyes. She's desperately trying to parse if she's simply been used by the older woman.

Trivia for the film often cites that Lauretta Murphy, the actress playing Shelly, became increasingly uncomfortable with the relationship as filming went on. After a short break from filming for the Christmas holiday, Murphy returned to the set as a borne-again Christian. She stated that she was no longer comfortable with the idea of kissing on camera, which would have been a part of the scene I just described. As a compromise, Williams-Crosby instead kisses Murphy's forehead several times during the scene. In some ways, these decidedly non-intimate forehead kisses contribute to making the scene subtly uncomfortable - just as it should be, given the subtext.

All of that said, I was surprised to a see a lesbian relationship presented in such a nonchalant way, especially for a film released in 1984. Ignoring the concerning elements of the relationship for a moment, it was refreshing for the relationship to appear in the film as simply another plot point. The relationship is just a trait shared by these two characters, much like any of the male-female relationships present in the film. It would be almost sweet if the implications of the relationship weren't otherwise so gross.

Ex Teammates - Fatal Games - B-Movie Geek
Ex-Teammates - Fatal Games

Killer Secrets (Spoilers Ahead)

The other reason that Fatal Games should be remembered is for the ending and the reveal of the killer's identity. In the climax of the film, Annie is chased around the school by the hooded killer and is stabbed in the side by the javelin. Wounded but not dead, Annie meets back up with her boyfriend Phil, who manages to get her back to the safety of the nurse's station. Luckily, Nurse Diane is there to give immediate medical attention to Annie, and Phil leaves to continue scouring the school for the killer. Unknown to Annie and Phil, Nurse Diane has just removed her disguise behind the medical partition - Annie has been left in the care of the killer herself!

For no discernible reason, Annie glances at the ground and sees a newspaper whose headline reads, "Sex Change Operation Doesn't Work: Olympic Champion Disqualified. Diane Paine, Javelin Winner, Tests Showed Too Many Male Hormones." This is the sudden, climatic revelation that she is a trans woman. As the climax unfolds it becomes clear that Diane underwent a sex change operation not because of any sense of gender dysphoria, but rather from a desire to win at the Olympics. Since Diane's performance was not competitive as a male, she chose to have the sex change operation so she could win competing against female athletes.

While I can understand the script's twisted logic for the character undergoing the sex change operation, it is not clear why Diane would turn her murderous impulses against the students under her care. Earlier in the film we witness her arguing with Dr. Jordine about the nature of his research. This scene establishes that Diane is concerned for the teens' safety. In retrospect, it is possible that her argument was disingenuous. Perhaps Diane wasn't concerned with the students' health, but rather that the medical treatment would make them better athletes than her. Her delicate psyche began to unwind as she was forced to watch all of these young athletes succeed where she has been disgraced.

Ultimately, during the film's climax, Diane explains that she has to "disqualify" all of the athletes that are going to the Nationals in order to prevent them from going to the Olympics. Diane goes on to say that she has to "disqualify" them so that she can win. Frankly, this logic is unsatisfying. It is very unclear why Diane would see herself as competing with her victims. It would have been more satisfying for Diane to recognize Dr. Jordine's hormone treatments as cheating. With this explanation, the script might have been able to developed a sense of misplaced morality. The very best villains are nearly always those that believe they are doing the right thing. It would have been poetic for Diane to "disqualify" her victims for having committing essentially the same transgression of which she is guilty.

Either way, the revelation strikes me as being the product of the scriptwriter having seen Sleepaway Camp when it was released the year prior. While Sleepaway Camp is certainly guilty of reinforcing negative trans stereotypes, there is at least an internal logic to that killer's actions. While this could be a thesis unto itself, all of the victims in Sleepaway Camp challenge the killer's sense of self-identity in some way. Further, Sleepaway Camp continues to live in the collective consciousness of horror fans largely based on the shocking final image of Angela, fully revealed, on the beach. There is no such shock imagery in Fatal Games, which is unfortunate in only one sense: without it, the film and its climatic reveal are forgettable.

Final Thoughts

Fatal Games is a serviceable, slash-by-the-numbers horror film. The acting is decent, but more memorable special effects would have improved its score. Given it problematic plotting, it is perhaps for the best that Fatal Games has largely been forgotten.

Two stars.

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