Casting its Ruin: Play Nice (1992)

Play Nice is the concept, but Dave’s not sure if he wants to play at all after watching Terri Treas’ gnarly serial killer thriller.

It’s no secret that A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) struggled for funding, with half the budget eventually supplied by someone who Bob Shaye referred to as “a Yugoslavian guy who had a girlfriend that he wanted in the movies” [1]. The man in question was George Zecevic, the Serbian-born founder of the London-based Smart Egg Pictures, who achieved great success in the ‘80s with the sequels to Wes Craven’s seminal horror flick and the Critters (1986) franchise. By the early to mid-‘90s, Zecevic and Smart Egg’s output lessened and leaned more towards well-regarded direct-to-video fare like Fred Olen Ray’s Mind Twister (1993) and Turi Meyer’s Sleep Stalker (1995).

If the term ‘three-star masterpiece’ is now established in The Schlock Pit vernacular, then PLAY NICE drops in the file below that – a two-star curiosity. The pitch is undoubtedly impressive: hard-ass cop Jack ‘Mouth’ Penucci (Ed O’Ross) falls in love with Jill (Louise Robey), a bookish woman from the Hall of Records, while simultaneously tasked with hunting down a serial killer with a vendetta against child abusers that have evaded the justice system. It sounds enticing, but it misses the mark on pretty much everything it sets out to do.

Billed as an erotic thriller, the decision to cast O’Ross is a baffling one. Granted, he can deliver gravel-voiced gruffness in his sleep, but he’s certainly no suave bit of spice capable of bonking his way through five steaming sex scenes. By the time he’s seen struggling to shag on a sliding bearskin rug, Play Nice dangerously teeters on the brink of parody. Having said that, his opposite number is no better. Louise Robey (billed only as ‘Robey’) was the mainstay in the Friday 13th TV series, which somehow managed to run for three seasons, but she’s gratingly wrong for a role that demands a sinister edge and an insatiable desire. Obvious from the outset that Jill is, in fact, the elusive executioner, she carries all the menace of a housewife who gets rowdy after a few too many sambucas with the girls.

Directed by Terri Treas – who’d go on to pen Snapdragon (1993) the following year – and co-written by her husband, Michael Zand – with whom she’d script a dozen episodes of Silk StalkingsPlay Nice has the added displeasure of being uncomfortably lurid in its depiction of abuse. Jack and Jill’s (!) sex life becomes increasingly twisted, to the point where Jill pleads with him to let her assume the role of his estranged daughter. “Show me how to be your little girl! Show me how to be your little girl!” she pleads, before Jack wallops her across the face and screws her on the floor.

Irrespective of its obvious flaws, Treas’ film is undeservedly blessed by the fine eye of James Mathers as its cinematographer – a tremendous talent who brought classy finesse to Jag Mundhra’s Night Eyes (1990) and Last Call (1991). Here he shoots each sex scene with a glowing palette and a flowing dynamism, which is expertly spliced together by frequent Fred Olen Ray collaborator W. Peter Miller. Cameos come with the welcome sight of Hector Mercado (Leather Jacket Love Story (1997)) and Terence Winkless (director of The Nest (1988) and Bloodfist (1989)), which further reinforces Play Nice as an objet d’art with a long list of imperfections.

USA ● 1992 ● Thriller ● 90mins

Ed O’Ross, Louise Robey (as ‘Robey’), Michael Zand, Bruce McGill ● Dir. Terri Treas ● Wri. Michael Zand, Chuck McCollum, from a story by Michael Zand, Chuck McCollum, Terri Treas

[1] ‘Freddy Lives: An Oral History of A Nightmare on Elm Street’ by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, Vulture, 20th Oct 2014

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