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Tabula Rasa

Dangerous Game

Directed by Stephen Hopkins, 1988

A Review by David Carroll

Dangerous Game cover (the Vigilante Cop sticker is not part of the original) The late 80s was a pretty good time for Aussie horror flicks. This was the time of 10BA, a strange piece of legislation that gave significant tax breaks to people investing in the local film industry. An awful lot of films were made, of all types, and a lot of them were awful (nothing unusual there). But there were opportunities for people with a vision to make the films they wanted to, and there was lots of good stuff too, even if most of it was lost in the confusion. The main trouble was that the support architecture for niche movies that the US has, in the form of its vast video industry, didn't exist in Australia. It wasn't that films could not come out on video, but that there wasn't the population or the information infrastructure for such videos to find a large number of people who would be interested.

Spurred on by the likes of Razorback earlier in the decade -- a film which did get wide recognition -- and lured by American successes, quite a few of these films were horror. Most of them are now particularly obscure, but saved for tenacious fans by, suitably, a US video release. As DVD takes over, it will be harder to track these things down. All of which brings us to Stephen Hopkins' Dangerous Game.

This looks like a pretty big budget movie. Perhaps not consistently so (the police station was a little bare), but it had scope and, more importantly, style. It had people willing to donate a large amount of money on a psycho stalking a group of teens in a department store and, naturally, sunk without a trace. But thanks to the wonders of eBay, we can see what we might have missed first time round.

The department store in question is Mark Wells, inside a huge, Gothic exterior somewhere in Sydney, based on the old Mark Foys building, I guess. The reason the kids are in there after-hours in the first place is complicated, but basically comes down to old-fashioned University student hi-jinks. Add a psycho -- an Irish cop called Murphy, with a grudge against one of the kids -- and then mix.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it's not quite a slasher flick, and not quite a action flick either (the comparison to Die Hard on the video cover is somewhat misleading). This might make it hard to market, and may cause disappointment in some of the audience, but I'm not seeing the subversion of genre as being a bad thing. The main thing I'm talking about is the presentation of Murphy, who is never a sympathetic character, but is also not the unstoppable and unknowable force of death that most such stalkers aspire to. He is always human, and as such makes mistakes, is never overly efficient, and even (if all else fails) tries to do the right thing. It's a good job from actor Steven Grives.

Dangerous Game cover, US videoOn the other side of the equation is the kids, two couples and friend. Unfortunately I can't be as kind about their portrayal. At one point one of them asks another, in mock insult, "How old are you?", and I had to wonder myself. Although clearly shown at university (Sydney Uni looks good as usual), they reminded me more of precocious, high school kids from some overly-perky TV show. This became less of a problem as the movie went on, since they reacted a lot more realistically to the pressures of being stalked, but it made the set-up a bit bemusing. I also got a little lost as to the relationships involved. At the beginning the mainstream couple are too shy to talk to each other, half way through they're lying half-naked in bed (whether or not they actually had sex was a bit of a mystery). I also tended to get the two non-hacker male leads mixed up, which didn't help. It all works out in the end, but it's a bit of a bumpy ride. In passing, I'll note that the fifth member of the group, John Polson, went on to invigorate Australian short film by setting up TropFest, and has had some other interesting roles as well. None of the other actors went on to great fame, although between them they cover things like Bliss, Blue Murder, Dead End Drive-In, Beyond Thunderdome and, rather more recently, Mulholland Drive.

As well as Murphy, the real star of the film is the apartment store, and Hopkins does a great job with it. Filled with lots of surreal touches, and a computer room rather reminiscent of Ridley Scott, it is nonetheless a realistic and effective set (I was in two minds about whether it was a real store or not, although judging by how much damage they do, I'm guessing not). It must be said that I know of no Australian department store that sells guns, let alone crossbows (mostly illegal in NSW), but they do make the night more interesting. It's also filled with religious imagery -- apparently it's close to Christmas, or the shop just has a thing about angels. Considering the juxtaposition of Soldier of Fortune and Christian iconography in Murphy's apartment, the whole starts coming together. Overall, the direction is sometimes a little constrained, but effective. Some of the scenes, notably the slide down the front of the department store and some of the action inside, are excellent. It even generates some scares, mostly when Murphy starts showing some restraint, and the rules of the game become a lot less obvious. Subversive indeed.

The movie may not have made much of a splash, but it did propel its director into low-key success in Hollywood, with projects that included one of the decent Nightmare on Elm St movies (#5), and episodes of an interesting new TV show 24 which hasn't made it down here yet. Maybe that wasn't the idea, but I'm sure the backers were happy to take their tax deductions and run. In their wake is Dangerous Game, a movie worth tracking down to watch.

 

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