22 July 2014

T.A.G.: The Assassination Game (1982)
Contributed by Stephen Ryan

Stephen Ryan is a small business owner, award-winning theatre actor, and devoted horror fan based in Richmond, VA. A BFA alumnus of Virginia Commonwealth University, he is also a certified graduate of the venerable Edwene Gaines’ Master Prosperity Teacher Training program.

Any budding horror fan growing up during the early 1980’s cable and VHS craze could arguably find their genre “fix” rather easily.

When the local gas station convenience store suddenly stocking video rentals was fresh out of such titles as Dominique is Dead, The Mutilator, or Basket Case…then HBO, Cinemax, or Spotlight (remember that channel?) often came to the rescue with similar fare in a matter of hours.

Intermittent joy was yielded in scanning the monthly cable movie guide, gleefully seeking out those content summaries featuring the words “horror,” “violence,” or (if we were really lucky) “graphic violence.” Now, now…you KNOW you did this!

The naughty enthusiasm of sneakily waking up at 3 AM and spinning the dial on that analog cable box to catch the R-rated, late-night gore quotient of The Prowler or Dead and Buried was alternately met during the daytime hours with an abundance of PG-rated cable-run potboilers. Brainwaves? The Hearse? Cardiac Arrest?

And, come on, man…the cable guide warned us that the PG-branded It's Alive had “violence AND childbirth.” Not knowing what the latter was yet, but sure that it was something gory or scary, we certainly couldn’t miss THAT today at 1:30 PM.

Now able to eat the fruit from the tree of the terror film at nearly any time, any day of the week, and with setting up the VCR timer in our absence not being nearly “good enough”…which one would we play hookie to catch mid-broadcast?

While hardly the best film on the HBO daytime roster, I must admit that none during this period stole my heart like the 1982 thriller oddity T.A.G.: The Assassination Game.

The story of a college campus rife with a game-cum-phenomenon in which the “assassins” take out their slated “adversaries” with suction-cup darts surely resonated with any like-minded youth of the Dungeons and Dragons persuasion.

Directed and written by John Carpenter associate Nick Castle (“The Shape” in Halloween), what seems at first to be an ornery teen/college comedy eventually becomes a stylish, skillful (if uneven) “stalk-and-slasher with guns” when a poor loser (a pre-Reanimator Bruce Abbott) continues the game anyway by eliminating his fellow players with real bullets.

Enter a super-sultry, luscious-lipped, ambitious opponent with every intention of winning (a beautiful, pre-Terminator Linda Hamilton, briefly married to Abbott in real life after the film’s inception); and the campus journalist (Robert Carradine) so smitten with her as part of a story on the game that we hope he reveals the real danger that we know she is in before it is too late.

Rest assured that T.A.G.’s PG-rating and genre ambiguity did not keep it from delivering everything that my horror love and child-libido desired. Abbott’s jumpy, unstable psycho-killer appears, then and now, cut from the same cloth as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.

Meanwhile, Hamilton’s aptly named “Susan Swayze” was as sensual and seductive as any suspense heroine I had seen at the age of 10-ish…cigarette puffing, noir-ish one-liners and all. This broad was smokin’ hot…literally (!), yet given further support by Carradine’s continual likening of her to “Ida Lupino…Barbara Stanwyck…Lauren Bacall.” (While I was only familiar with Bacall from The Fan at that young age…they ALL sounded good and sexy to me.)

Too naďve to understand how disposable the film’s comic exposition was, I instead anxiously awaited the legitimately creepy sequence in which Abbott terrorizes Hamilton in a music studio, taunting her with beaming stage lights and menacing announcements over an audio monitor until she shoves him out with a grand piano.

Yet, the real payoff would come moments later when she, while hiding in a closet, discovers the dead bodies of her fellow “players,” only now realizing that she is in genuine danger.

Generously aided by underrated composer Craig Safan’s eerie, flanging thriller underscore, with plentiful synth-pulse piano “plunking,” this might as well have been Bernard Herrmann to me then, and still holds up today as a sincerely compelling suspense soundtrack that elevates an admittedly problematic movie. (Intrada, Varese Sarabande, are you listening?)

In hindsight, genre buffs might protest that there are other films of this period far more mentionable than this, and they would be right. However, at a time when young horror fans of the era lovingly received classics, guilty pleasures, second-tier “near-misses,” and cross-genre “hybrids” equally, this offbeat cult item satisfied a fourth-grade devotee’s every need.

Crazy killers, dishy women, stalkings, chilling music…and, hey, it was rated PG and made for perfect Saturday morning HBO viewing until the local Texaco had their sun-baked copy of Night of the Zombies back in stock.

And, hell…if not broadcast again until Tuesday afternoon at 12:30 PM? Oh, my…I feel a fever coming on! Looks like I’ll have to stay home that day!

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