Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Danning the Flames

I know I'm mixing metaphors here, but, if hunger serves as the best seasoning for a meal, then horniness is the straw that stirs the soft-core movie lover's drink. OK, that makes little sense, but I'm still reeling with confusion from watching Howard Avedis' 1984 opus They're Playing with Fire

Let me start at the beginning. My girlfriend is out of town for the week, so of course it's time to catch up on some of the more prurient cinema out there. I hit a nearby DVD swap place and while poking around in the erotic section, I snagged some Jess Franco, and a movie that had Sybil Danning posed provocatively on the cover (is there any other way for her to pose?) in what looked like some ultra-sleazy 80's sexploitation movie in the tradition of Private Lessons. As soon as I got home, I tossed They're Playing with Fire on and it began exactly as expected. The opening credit sequence features Sybil Danning walking around a yacht in a string bikini - so far so good - and then cuts to some establishing shots of a college that ultimately lead to a classroom where Professor Danning (all right, her character's name is Diane Stevens - who cares! ) is teaching the students some Shakespeare while dressed in her conservative skirt and humongous glasses, 'cause she's smart, classy and sexy.

As the class period ends, Danning, er, um, I mean, Dr Stevens looks at innocent young student Jay Richard and says "See me after class in my office, I may have some work for you." Ya she does! Even the girl sitting behind Jay, who has an unrequited crush, cannot deter him from helping out the hot professor as she warns "You better watch out, you're playing with fire." Oh, hell yes, go Jay go! Cut to the yacht, the professor, in a barely-there bikini, and Jay.

OK, right about now, I'm expecting the typical teen sex comedy complication to ensue. Either Jay falls overboard, or the professor's husband shows up, or the yacht starts sinking, etc. But no, Sybil- I mean Diana, takes Jay below and boinks his little brains out! 

WTF? The movie just started five minutes ago, is it over? He gets the girl at the beginning of the film? With that plot point, uh... taken care of, I had no idea where this movie was headed. What's more, the movie didn't either. What actually happens next is a massive exercise in genre jumping that, while disastrous to the film's cohesion, is pretty darned entertaining as a train wreck. I don't really want to spoil with further details, but within a scant few minutes of Jay getting pinned to the sheets, someone is shooting at him and the film turns into a thriller.

It subsequently turns into a mystery. Then an erotic thriller. Then a slasher. Oh, and it's a comedy too, I think. I did laugh in certain places, but I don't know if it was appropriate. Are tied up dogs funny? Does it depend on the breed? 
I had so many questions I wanted to ask about this film while viewing that it took me out of my soft-core state of mind and I began delving into the directors background immediately after viewing. To my surprise, like Orson Welles (and Ed Wood), Avedis writes, directs and produces his features, and even more surprisingly, I'd seen two of them:

Both were exploitation films from the early 70's, and I began to since something Oedipal about Avedis' love of cougars. These films were pretty dull affairs, despite the tawdry titles, which were somewhat plot-deceptive, and I remember growing impatient with the slow pacing in both of them. That wasn't the case with They're Playing with Fire, which for the most part, moved very quickly and genre switched so fast, that I was never bored. The movie is horribly written and wildly uneven as you'd expect, and there's something off-putting about Eric Brown, who plays the lead character Jay. He's kind of like an inappropriately old cub scout, and his acting consists of opening his eyes too wide and smiling. I was actually uncomfortable, and not in a good way, when he was on top of Sybil Danning. On the plus side, the luckiest man in the world, aka Andrew Prine, co-stars as the professor's husband.

Prine is always solid and does well in this film playing a major douchebag. It would be easy to be distracted by Danning's phenomenal assets and overlook the fact that she did a decent acting job as well which is particularly noticeable in scenes with the inferior Brown.

Ultimately, I only partially got the sexploitation delight I was expecting, but it was an entertainingly bad movie that I'll return to and not just for Danning's smoking hotness. Oh well, maybe one of the Franco films I picked up will have a lot of titillating, near porn content. Has anyone heard of She Killed in Ecstasy?

Final score 6.5/10

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