Monday, June 28, 2010

They're Playing with Fire (Howard Avedis, 1984)

In the mediocrity-laced afterbirth that is now, the sight of an older woman seducing a much younger man has become so commonplace, that you can't seem to go anywhere, entertainment-wise, without running into some disproportionately aged pairing flouting societies meaningless rules and regulations. Whether it be poorly made porn or overly smug TV shows, this not-so newfangled combination has reached its saturation point. Particularly in the former, where the women are barely thirty, reek of cosmetic surgery, and the guys violently prodding at them with their veiny malformations look like musclebound sexual predators straight out of an inexplicably published gangbang how-to guide. Anyway, as the more discerning amongst us would expect, I was rather taken aback by the nonjudgmental nonchalance in which They're Playing with Fire goes about laying the groundwork for the mismatched venereal alliance at the centre of its tawdry mire. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the adolescent male had an extra boyish quality about him, or maybe it was because the more experienced female literally oozed sophistication. Either way, I found their pairing to be quite mischievous–you know, as supposed to off-putting and sad. In fact, their relationship was so mischievous, I couldn't help but notice that male's face barely reached the apex of the female's bumpy acreage whenever he was seen trying to vigorously plow through her bawdy wheat field.

Yet another sleazy film from writer-director Howard Avedis and writer-producer Marlene Schmidt (Miss Universe, 1961), the husband and wife team who brought us the definite article obsessed trilogy that consisted of The Teacher, The Stepmother and The Specialist, They're Playing with Fire sees them (with the help of famed cinematographer Gary Graver) continuing to explore the realm of pampered dissatisfaction; a world that is crawling with seemingly well-off citizens who always seem to want more out of life.

This desire invariably revolves around money and sex. And since it's the 1980s, a time when the pressure to succeed was at its zenith, having a respectable job is not enough to fulfill the pricey needs of the era.

Even though the film's poster misleads us into believing that we're about to watch a lighthearted sex comedy along the lines of My Tutor and Private Lessons, the sinister underbelly of this trashy undertaking unveils itself when a first-year student, Jay Richard (Eric Brown), at Oceanview College is coerced by his English professor, Dr. Diane Stevens PhD (Sybil Danning), and her psych professor husband, Dr. Michael Stevens (Andrew Prine), into burglarizing the palatial home of the latter professor's rich mother.

The intent is to scare his churlish mother (K.T. Stevens) and wheelchair bound grandmother (Margaret Wheeler) into moving to a nursing home. Of course, the plan goes terribly awry from the get-go, as mother Stevens gets wise to the break-in and chases after Jay with a high-powered rifle. Luckily for Jay she's not much of a markswoman.

Apparently, Mr. Stevens' mother does not approve of Mrs. Stevens; she's low-class and totally beneath them. The only way he can get hold of any inheritance is to prove to the lawyers that she's mentally unstable.

After Jay flees, another visitor shows up moments later and murders mommy and granny. Wondering how the plan went, Mr. and Mrs. Stevens and Jay go back to the house later that evening. The traces of blood on the wall cause the married professors to suspect that their student accomplice did something untoward to the two elderly women. Much finger pointing ensues, and the threesome begin to play an unsavoury game with one another.

Who killed the old ladies, and who had the most to gain?

Approaching the material with a workmanlike efficiency, Howard Avedis brings his trademark no frills technique to the sordid project. It's true, he doesn't bestow a high energy montage on us (he's a product of the mostly montage-free 1970s), but he does manage to arrange it so that Sybil Danning ends up in a state of undress near the end of every scene she is in. And from a pragmatic point-of-view, that's all that really matters. It is clear that Mr. Avedis saw early on that Sybil was the film's greatest asset, and, like any rational person would, attempts to utilize her natural gifts at every turn.

While Sybil Danning nakedness is always a plus, the structurally sound actress managed to enliven the genitals of the great unwashed no matter what she had or didn't have on. One of the most visually pleasing women to walk the lumpy surface of Rigel 7, the seductive Austrian exudes an animalistic allure as the sultry English professor with killer thighs. The sight of her merely walking from place to place was intoxicating. Whether running long distances in heels or lounging on the deck of her yacht, Miss Danning brings new meaning to the term: elegant practicality.

Which brings me to her co-star. Now I don't know exactly what his deal was, but the indifference Eric Brown displays as Sybil's character is straddling him was dumbfounding. He could have been suffering from a severe case of "I can't believe my unworthy freshman cock is sploshing around inside Sybil Danning-ittis," or maybe he was just a player with super mad lady skillz. After all, he is seen throughout the movie repeatedly rebuffing the advances of an attractive classmate/amateur private eye (the extremely expressive Beth Schaffell*). But still, I didn't really get that much of a man-about-town vibe from him. I guess it's just one of those inexplicable things that defy explanation. Much like the wonky twist this flick tries to pull off during its inevitable conclusion.

Most Howard Avedis films end at around the 95 minute mark, and this one is no different.

* Having lost the ability to evaluate the quality of a movie acting back in 2004 (I blame a dangerous combination of Napoleon Dynamite and Xanadu), I wasn't sure about the temperament of Beth Schaffell's performance as Cynthia, the gal who pesters and spies on our young hero. Call me meshugana, but something seemed a tad off about her. And while a part of me did enjoy the idiosyncratic nature of the many strange faces she sports in this film, the other half had a sneaking suspicion that she was not doing this on purpose. In other words, she was merely a terrible actress.

In all my years of looking at stuff, never have I been this conflicted by the work of an actress in a motion picture. Which is sort of compliment, especially when you consider the fact that the film features Sybil Danning getting undressed in every other scene. Oh, and as is the case with the majority of performances of this type, this was Beth's lone screen credit.



  1. I remember seeing this (likely on Skinemax) when I was a wee lad. The only part I could visualize was the straddle/sloshing scene. The chronologically adult me bought the DVD as soon as it knew how.

    Oddly, my favorite movies from grades 6 through 8 are Sybil Danning films. This one, Battle Beyond the Stars, and Malibu Express. All three make me a tad queasy these days. Unfortunately, the best of the Danning films has very little of her; Reform School Girls.

  2. Fine observations on the increasingly precarious nature of "milf" porn... there is a thin line between hearty onslaught and abuse, so I emphatically agree with your likening them to "gangbang" how-to guides.

    Sybil Danning is way hot.

  3. I love the shot of the tied up dog being held hostage, for some reason. Also, Howling II is the Citizen Kane of exploiting Sybil's ample assets.

  4. I don't understand the TILF (teacher I'd like to ****?) phenomenon. I've never had any sort of amorous feelings towards a student. There are boundaries that should not be crossed. :P

    Dude, I'm watching a Rush documentary. I squealed when I saw Yonge St./Sam the Record Man footage.

  5. @Darius Whiteplume: You watched Sybil Danning flicks in the grade 6? Nice.

    I think was still eating paste at that time.

    Skinemax is the nickname for the television network, Cinemax.

    Yeah, Reform School Girls, if anything, is more of a showcase for Pat Ast and Wendy O. Williams.

    @Jerry: "...a thin line between hearty onslaught and abuse." Well put.

    Totally hot.

    @Movie Bullstuff: For some reason, indeed. Weird, wild stuff.

    You could also say it's The Magnificent Amplesons of exploiting her assets.

    @Karim Amir: "There are boundaries that should not be crossed" would make an excellent tag line for my not even close to being produced TILF thriller, My Teacher Loves Monster Cocks 6.

    I can't believe you saw that Rush doc before I did.

    Sure, the Sam the Record Man of today is a crumbling mess, but it's comforting to know that its spirit lives on in the memories of others. *sniff*

    On that note, Happy Canada Day! :)

  6. I started my career in depravity early. I think I caught the dirty movie bug when I accidentally saw the ladder/window scene in Animal House. My mom was watching it and ran me out of the room. I new then that naked women were something she did not want me to see, therefore must be the greatest thing in the world.

  7. I just discovered your blog. I'm going to have to spend a lot more time here. I love the subject matter and your written voice.

    "couldn't help but notice that male's face barely reached the apex of the female's bumpy acreage whenever he was seen trying to vigorously plow through her bawdy wheat field."

    That's a brilliantly funny piece of writing right there.

  8. @Darius Whiteplume: Call me grossly misinformed, but I think DeVry has started offering a six month course in depravity.

    Anyway, I'm not even close to being depraved, but I'll admit, Michelle Johnson's stellar work in Blame It On Rio had a profound impact on my young psyche.

    @ZedWord: Thanks, ZedWord. I appreciate that. :)

  9. Happy Canada Day! (I'm a day late, but you know, it's the thought that counts.) I celebrated by listening to the CanCon satellite radio station.

    Your hypothetical TILF film title made me laugh.

    Oh, a friend of mine is headed to TO in September--of course, I was like, "are you going to the film fest?" She said she wasn't, but she heard about something called Jesus Day? Jesus in the city? I don't remember this. I do remember getting stuck in traffic during the Gay Pride parade many years ago.

  10. Happy Fourth of July Day! (I'm two days early, but you know, it's the thought that counts.) I'm celebrating by reading about Thomas Paine. And from what I've read so far, he seemed like a pretty cool dude.

    Hypothetical? ;)

    Jesus Day?!? What the fuck is that? ;) Seriously, though, I've never heard of it.

    Your Gay Pride parade experience sounds an awfully lot like that episode of Seinfeld where the four of them are caught in a traffic jam during the Puerto Rican Day parade.

    Oh, and my reaction to getting Friday's Final Jeopardy! correct was the most obnoxious I've behaved in years.

  11. I get obnoxious whenever I get an African-themed Jeopardy clue.

    We celebrated the Fourth by cleaning. Fireworks are legal here, so everyone it seems shoots off bottle rockets. Not us. I find my fingers very useful.

    "Jesus in the City" is--I guess--that Jesus day thing, scheduled for September 11th.

    Hey, do you have power? TO's power outage is all over Twitter.

  12. Yeah, you were probably super obnoxious when you got the Gabon one correct. ;)

    Fingers are great for picking at things.

    Oh, and cleaning is very patriotic.

    There was a power outage in my area on Sunday, but I didn't experience the one I think you're referring to. Which I think affected most of the city's west end.

  13. I know I've written this before, but that opening paragraph is sheer genius. "In the mediocrity-laced afterbirth that is now" is one greatest things ever written in the history of everything.

    "Pampered dissatisfaction" is great, too. Its something I like to call "cracker consternation."

    This movie sounds really icky. I've never heard of Howard Avedis before. But I can't believe you've watched this many of his movies.

  14. Thanks.

    You like, "mediocrity-laced afterbirth...," eh? I guess it does have a certain ring to it. ;)

    Well, to be fair, three out of the four Howard Avedis films I have seen were included in one of the Drive-In Classics 12 Pack thingies. So, it's not like I'm seeking them on purpose. Though, I'll admit, I'm a big fan of this film and The Teacher (the other two are kinda crappy).