Chess Club (USA, 1984)

October 8, 2009

We made a genuine find in box 7, a pristine work print of the almost mythical slasher film Chess Club. Indeed, many of our researchers were shocked to discover that a print of this movie existed at all, such was the controversy surrounding its non-release. There was an unusual air of reverence as the reels were threaded onto our projector. I suspect we all wondered if the movie could live up to its evocative publicity campaign, bearing that memorable tag line “Knight to Queen Die!”

The plot of the film is standard slasher material. At Kennedy High School in Rubinstein, Minnesota, the class whipping boy is chess club captain Ralph Prowse (former child star Grimpen Myer). After being disfigured and sexually humiliated during a prank by the cheerleading squad, Prowse is sent away to an asylum. One year later and the cheerleaders are getting ready for their senior prom, when a mysterious stranger in a black & white checkered mask begins to kill them off one by one.

Naturally it’s Prowse exacting his revenge, but what makes the film unusual is the inventive chess theme to the kills. Cheerleader captain April (Swedish starlet Terri Larssson) is pecked to death by a flock of rooks. Her sycophantic friend Chickie (future soap regular Whilimena Waters) is impaled on a bishop’s crook. The promiscuous girl Fácile (Rae Volconvo in her first and last film role) is throttled by the magnetic tape from a porn VHS cassette, which is phonetically dubious at best. Fácile’s jock bully boyfriend Chad (Rolf Barney) is decapitated with a Gladys Knight album. The culmination of the murders is to be the death of final girl Leigh at the chess-themed prom night, where she is crowned queen. Leigh is played with a deft touch by noted scream queen Betsy Mauser, then riding high on the success of Railroad Spike, Stab School and Railroad Spike 2.

In the harsh light of day, Chess Club is no better or worse than any number of independent 1980s slashers. Director/writer/producer Bill McNair here shows little of the visual flair he brought to his later work. What gave the film its notoriety was the legal case brought by the United States Chess Federation, who accused McNair of bringing the game into disrepute. The lawsuit was successful, and the Los Angeles Superior Court orderrd all copies of the film destroyed. The distraught McNair fled to Paris, where he eventually directed the psychological thriller Non-sens Injustifié. The commercial failure of that fascinating film effectively put an end to McNair’s career, and after tawdry exploitation shocker Mon Dieu, Mes Yeux! he never worked again. He was last seen driving a Lyon taxi in 1991.

Ultimately Chess Club does not really justify its notoriety, but neither did it deserve to go unseen for 25 years. McNair had some interesting ideas and perhaps would have developed into a successful director. Sadly his career was, if you’ll pardon the pun, ‘checked’ before it began. Ahem.

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