In 1983, Hikmet Avedis & wife Marlene Schmidt wrote & produced Mortuary, which Hikmet directed. A year later they were back in the same capacity with They’re Playing With Fire. Taking the plot of their 1974 movie The Teacher, and Eric Brown – the star of the popular Private Lessons (1981), it starts off simple – a teenage boy reciprocates the sexual advances of his sexy mature teacher. But from there on it gets much more complex as the film progresses – the tryst is part of a plan involving the teacher and her husband (who may or may not be “in” on everything) to get their hands on a family inheritance, which is soon helped along when a masked killer murders the old bats keeping the fortune at bay. Coincidentally after the teen had just been lurking in the cellar on a scare-em-shitless mission for his lover. Then his girlfriend gets her hands on photos of the taudry tryst and threatens to use them. Got that?
That’s just the first half hour of the spider-web like plot. I almost needed to make a chart to keep track of all the characters and relationships. But it’s all happening for a reason. Each character is a player or pawn in the game this film lays out. The boy. The girlfriend. The teacher. The husband. The gardener. The slasher. Each has a part to play and ulterior motives that are slowly unveiled.
The slasher appears sparsely in the first half of the film, but drives the film forward when he does appear. Even in the scenes he’s not in, listen closely, as snippets of his backstory and identity are slowly unspooled in increments building towards a final twist that makes a second viewing a treat. In the second half of the film, he seeps into more and more of the plot until the final half hour is firmly entrenched in slasher-land. This slasher has some personality – a shattered state of mind subtlety visualized by his high contrast costume – black balaclava, blue denim jacket, white running shoes. He mutters twisted childhood speak hinting at long-ago transgressions and watches with stark wide open eyes reminiscent of Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio character in Dirty Harry. And, allow me to digress, but I’ve always hated in late 90s slashers how the culprits would be strictly blade-men but then switch to a gun in the climax (usually as a tool to keep the final girl still while the killer explains his hate-my-daddy motives), but on the other hand there were a few 80s slashers whom could have really pulled themselves out of a fatal bind by using a gun. They’re Playing With Fire‘s killer effortlessly switches between implements of slaughter according to whatever fits the situation. From a high powered rifle to a blunt baseball bat to a sharp machete!
They’re Playing With Fire has alot in common with Mortuary besides the same creative team and close proximity to its year of production. Both share cast, too: Greg Kaye, Violet Manes, Bill Conklin, Curt Ayers, Marlene Schmidt herself, and Alvy Moore in a cameo role as an employer of the young male lead. Both have a suitably evocative score by John Cacavas. Both are set in Californian shoreside locations and their affluent expansive mansions. Both milk dark shadowy rooms for maximum suspense. Dead bodies displayed echo the similar of the party table scene in Mortuary. Both have ancillary teen characters that pop up sporadically but aren’t really part of plot. They’re Playing With Fire also uses some of its similarities to tweak what didn’t work in the earlier film – i.e., Bill Paxton in Mortuary was immediately guessable as the killer (and strangely, even had a scene early in the film in costume but without mask that made one wonder if they were even trying to hide his identity), while the killer here remains an enigma throughout and keeps the ultimate secret behind his mask locked up safely until the final scenes.
Some random notes – Eric Brown plays the teenager in-over-his-head a bit too innocently at times. The first time Sybil Danning beds down with him, she’s grinding him like a juicer and oohing and ahhing along the way and he’s making idle conversation like he’s numb from the waist down. He’s supposed to be someone on the verge of manhood but frequently comes off as much younger. In fairness to Brown, this “innocent little boy” element is a prevalent in the writing of this type of genre (see the aforementioned Private Lessons – also Brown) And Sybil, oh Sybil. Truly the hottest 80’s woman on film with her ample, bronzed body and… ah, whoops. Back on point. Andrew Prine turns in a reliable performance as the husband, Michael, in a similar suspicious role as Christopher George played in Mortuary. Dominick Brascia from Friday The 13th Part V: A New Beginning contributes another sterling performance as a hungry fatso, and in one frustrating scene manages to unknowingly escape death after pissing in a garden while the killer hides behind a nearby statue. So close, yet so far!
It’s a film those few who have reviewed it have enjoyed because they insist the film doesn’t “make up its mind” if it wants to be a sex film or a slasher. Which to me is the silliest statement ever – as if a film should be whipped for not fitting a specific category – and you know if it did fit firmly in a mold, it’d be slammed for being just like all the others. It is indeed an odd duck to classify, but that’s what makes the flick so watchable. It’s always hard to guess what’ll happen next because it could switch to either genre – it’s part sex film, part thriller, part slasher. The distributors had to make a choice of what angle to play up and chose “sex romp”. But it would be a doomed scenario either way – had they marketed it as a slasher, fans of the time would be disappointed it doesn’t follow the prescribed format of teen leads and a kill every ten minutes. As a result of the title and marketing, this film has flown under the radar of even some of the most seasoned retro slasher fans – until now?
This review was originally written in 2007