Director: Gunnar Hellström
VCI Entertainment

VCI resurrects the long forgotten PSYCHO-thriller THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! on a packed special edition DVD.

Hungarian refugee Sym (Jack Lord, TV’s HAWAII FIVE-O) is hoofing it through the Arizona desert when pretty Mickey Terry (Susan Strasberg, SCREAM OF FEAR) offers him a lift into the nearby ghost town of Jerome where she runs a filling station with her mother and sisters. Her older sister Diz (Collin Wilcox, JAWS 2) is less welcoming, especially when Mickey invites Sym to stay overnight in the garage, and mother gets the shock of her life when she finds him in the shower (after picking up youngest sister Nan [Tisha Sterling, THE KILLER INSIDE ME], who has just been expelled from school for setting a cat on fire). Sym feels no more welcome over dinner with Diz’s barely-veiled contempt, Nan’s edgy behavior, Mrs. Terry’s forced hospitality, and Mickey’s sudden rebuffing of his attentions. After finding a rattlesnake in his bed, Sym decides it would be better to make his exit the next morning without saying goodbye; but a gloved stalker runs him over on the road. He wakes up in the Clarksdale hospital where the local sheriff (Mort Mills, PSYCHO’s CHP officer) warns him about the Terry family’s troubled history with men including the mysterious disappearance of Mickey’s fiancé. Sym, however, returns to Jerome and to Mickey and learns just what happens to the mister that gets between a psycho and her sisters…

The film’s elusiveness, its cast, distribution by Joe Solomon’s Fanfare Films, and the title itself suggests a grindhouse gold; and it is (coming just before Lord’s twelve-year run on HAWAII FIVE-O), although it began life with the potential to be an A-picture. According to the disc’s supplementary materials, actor/screenwriter Gary Crutcher initially aimed higher with the film’s prospects. Curtis Harrington was the first to get his hands on it and put together a package with George Hamilton in the lead, Tuesday Weld in the Strasberg role, and Gloria Swanson as the mother. Then Rock Hudson “stole” the project with plans to go behind the camera, but he lost interest after the flop of John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS. Roman Polanski also became briefly involved (during which the protagonist became a Polish refugee), but it was clothing store owner Marc Desmond (who has the small role as a doctor) – who paid Crutcher in clothes to work on a story idea of his – who showed the script to producer Robert Poore. The end result is a little bit PSYCHO and a little bit of a dysfunctional PETTICOAT JUNCTION (if it were more of a Southern Gothic rather than the dull point of the “Hooterville” trilogy) once the other sisters go boy-crazy; but Crutcher’s writing and the performances are such that the film stays diverting, with the sisters’ and mother’s different accounts of their family secret all as believable as are their changeable dispositions towards Sym. Lord’s Hungarian accent is pretty flat but he remains a relatable character among the showier roles for the women. Strasberg (who would enter into another volatile sibling relationship in PSYCHO SISTERS) and Sterling are both fetching and deliver in spades performance-wise, but Wilcox – by turns haggard and sultry – is the real surprise here, and suddenly believable as stiffer competition for Sym’s attentions than Sterling’s teenage tease (mother is something else entirely). The film’s surprise ending has been compared to aforementioned Hitchcock film, and while it certainly is unexpected and jolting, it may produce chuckles along the lines of the Gus Van Sant remake’s reveal rather than the jolt of the original (and Hellström’s film has yet another subsequent sting-in-the-tail or two before the fade out).

The film was another one of the many unsung early credits of cinematographer Vilmos Zgismond who, like his fellow Hungarian refugee Laszlo Kovacs, would get his start stateside in 1960s exploitation – working for the likes of Al Adamson and Ray Dennis Steckler – before moving on to bigger things with Robert Altman (IMAGES) and Brian De Palma (OBSESSION); that’s not to say it’s a visual masterwork, but Zgismond achieves some beautiful shots and creative lighting in the hotel ruins and the dark environs of the filling station’s garage. Stu Phillips’ orchestral score was recycled in a number of later films post-produced by Edit-Rite and Synchrofilm including THE SAVAGE INTRUDER, Jess Franco’s VENUS IN FURS (the English version was finished stateside), THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN (the American release version of Leon Klimovsky's WEREWOLF'S SHADOW) and SISTERS OF DEATH (which has a similar desert setting and ends on a similar although less ambiguous freeze frame). Sixties psychedelic band The Electric Prunes’ song “Shadows” is also featured prominently. The film was the first feature credit for editor Lou Lombardo who quickly moved onto higher profile assignments like McCABE & MRS. MILLER and THE WILD BUNCH.

VCI’s progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.71:1) transfer is derived from 16mm (a composite of a print supplied by Joe Dante and another one found by archivist Henry Guerro). Given the gauge of the print, the aspect ratio choice is likely a compromise since some peripheral info may have been lost in the reduction process and 1.85:1 theatrical matting would have been too severe. Colors are okay for the most part given the sunbaked settings. There’s actually very little damage in the way of scratches, or at least not enough to distract. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is in great condition with the music – particularly the Electric Prunes track – coming through quite vividly. VCI has thoughtfully provided optional English subtitles, although they could have done with some proofing.

Film historian Daniel Griffith appears in an introduction (1:22) that opens the disc (after the start-up trailers) which is then followed by a screen that asks you to pledge not to divulge the film’s shocking ending with yes or no options (don’t be afraid to try out the “no” option at least once). Griffith also moderates an audio commentary for the film with the film’s screenwriter Gary Crutcher, who recalls the experience vividly and doesn’t require too much prompting to stay on track. He originally wrote it as a play at age nineteen and based it on his experience of looking for the perfect woman, which he found in the form of three sisters – two of which were dancers while another was a hand model/double for actress Pier Angeli – who lived together in a house with their mother in Hollywood (two thirds of the film is autobiographical while he took dramatic license with the third act as he – like any sane man – got out when things became weird). He lived off the script for a decade with various personalities optioning the project under various titles like THE EDGE OF NOWHERE, YOUNG MAN AMONG WOMEN and INSANITY. He compares the cast/crew in-fighting behind the scenes as a “mini-United Nations” due to the various nationalities of the personnel (with lots of slurs going around). He recalls Swedish director Gunnar Hellström’s slow working methods early on (with a nice quip from the film’s sound man on the first day of filming), and that approximately five minutes of footage establishing the ghost town was shot to parallel the situation of the Terry family (but it was eventually trimmed for pacing). The film’s editor Lou Lombardo doubled as the opening victim. Crutcher recalls getting along with Lord even though the crew found him difficult (he got along with the cast), as well as polishing some scripts for HAWAII FIVE-O episodes as well as a feature script (Crutcher disliked Hellström from the start). Distributor Joe Solomon is credited as producer because he came in with finishing funds for the $325,000 shoot. The title was originally LOVERS IN LIMBO, but Solomon changed it to THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! (it was later distributed by American International Television as THE FEMALE TRAP, which is the title Crutcher prefers). Griffith jumps in at the hint of a lull and seems to re-energize Crutcher whose anecdotes about Lord aren’t always flattering but the screenwriter is also forthcoming about his own part in that volatile relationship.

Griffith also provides a thorough retrospective documentary – in association with Ballyhoo Motion Pictures (who were also involved with the recovery of William Grefe’s THE DEVIL’S SISTER) – on the film Psycho's Sister: Making "The Name of the Game is Kill" (45:38) which features input from Crutcher, Zgismond, Phillips, Electric Prune’s James Lowe, filmmaker Joe Dante, Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas, and filmmaker/historian Jeff Burr. Dante begins the documentary by talking about his first encounter with the film on a double bill, and writing about it for the magazine Castle of Frankenstein. Crutcher talks about the prolonged development with the repeated interest by high profile parties and the collapse of those deals, as well as the autobiographical aspect of the story. There is plenty of overlap with the commentary (sometimes almost verbatim), but editing allows his comments to be interspersed with context and support from the others. Zgismond talks about his beginnings in America (doing 16mm educational films); taking roughly ten years to reestablish himself stateside at the level he was working back in Hungary. He also backs up Crutcher’s statements about the difficulty of working with the director (as well as the many physical altercations). He only briefly mentions working with Al Adamson, but it’s nice to hear Zgismond talking about his earlier exploitation works. Composer Phillips was a music producer and arranger who had written incidental music for THE MONKEES. He got involved with the film through Joe Solomon, for whom he had just scored HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS and would later score six other films for him including SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES. He goes into detail about how he achieved the sound of the film with a small “electrified” orchestra. Lowe talks briefly about the recording the song – which Phillips had written – and not hearing anything about it subsequently. Lucas delves into the subtler aspects of the story, while Burr fills in the filmographies of the cast and crew (including the extensive and sometimes rare TV appearances). Some scenes were removed for “questionable content” but the implications are sometimes clear.

The filmography of the distributor is catalogued here with “Schlockmeister: Joe Solomon on Reels” (44:59), a chronological trailer reel of Solomon’s Fanfare Films releases from the early sixties through the 1970s starting with Piero Regnoli’s PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRES (which was sold to him by Richard Gordon), THE BEACH GIRLS AND THE MONSTER, THE BLACK KLANSMAN, and Jess Franco’s THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z. There's some wonderful rarities, including the trailer for the Richard Gordon production TOWER OF EVIL under its alternate HORROR OF SNAPE ISLAND title, as well as the Gordon production TALES OF THE BIZARRE (first released by New Line Cinema and then recut to emphasize horror elements as the B-feature for TOWER OF EVIL), THE CURIOUS FEMALE, the Spaghetti Western KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE, SOUL SOLDIER, and SUPERARGO AND THE FACELESS GIANTS (a 1968 Italian film picked up by Solomon for a 1971 double bill with Antonio Margheriti’s WAR BETWEEN THE PLANETS).

Temple of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali provides an optional commentary over the trailers starting with Solomon’s beginnings as a movie adman, traveling to towns ahead of the films, putting up posters, and arranging advance screenings to spread word-of-mouth. Unfortunately, Poggiali’s voice is drowned out by the trailer audio during THE PLAYGIRLS AND THE VAMPIRE when he is delivering the initial biographical information but the audio corrects itself quickly with the second trailer. HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS (with Jack Nicholson) was Solomon’s first film as a producer and proved highly successful and was followed up by ANGELS FROM HELL and RUN ANGEL RUN. WILD WHEELS was an independent pick-up that had to be cut for an R-rating (THE CURIOUS FEMALE was also originally rated X). Apparently trailers could not be sourced for all of the Solomon releases – including THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL – but Poggiali fills in the gaps on the commentary so his comments do not always line up with the start of the trailers. The trailer for EVEL KNIEVEL was found but then lost again, so it is illustrated here with a photo montage set to a radio spot. Poggiali also delves into the long development of some Solomon productions like HOT SUMMER WEEK which was later released as GIRLS ON THE ROAD (as well as the negative press it garnered Solomon from the director). He finishes the track discussing some Fanfare releases that never happened including the Martin Cohen production THE INFERNAL IDOL (later released as CRAZED through Warner Bros.) and William Grefe’s ELECTRIC SHADES OF GREY (which would not get released at all until Something Weird Video released on tape as THE PSYCHEDELIC PRIEST). Solomon originally acquired THE SLAUGHTER from Michael and Roberta Findlay but had no luck on it and gave it back to them (when it would later become SNUFF through Monarch Releasing).

The text extra “Good News in Jerome” by Chris Poggiali describes his visit to the town of Jerome and tour of the film locations as well as a screening of the film on DVDR for the town officials (who were unaware that a film had ever been shot there). “Memo from the Flophouse” is another text extra written by Crutcher about the rediscovery of the film. Lastly is “Out from the Shadows: The Electric Prunes” (3:35) in which James Lowe recites an essay about the founding of the group over a photo montage. The group disbanded in 1968 after releasing three albums and reformed in 1999. The featurette also includes footage of a young band in Sicily performing “Shadows” from THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! Also included are a promotional gallery and a TV spot (0:45) that appears to be a reconstruction with the title card obviously newly-created. While the quality of the transfer is regrettable, the extras more than make up for it, and THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! is definitely worth seeking out. (Eric Cotenas)