Private Lessons (1981), which centered around a naive teenage boy (Eric Brown) from a well-to-do family being seduced by his sexy, live-in French maid (Emmanuelle series star Sylvia Kristel) and becoming involved in a blackmail scheme in the process, ended up becoming one of the big surprise hits of its year, grossing over 26 million dollars on a 2.8 million budget on its initial U.S. theatrical release. The film not only helped kick-start the popular teen sex comedy craze of the decade, which would hit its peak in popularity with the 100+ million grossing Porky's (1982), but also led the way for a lot of movies featuring experienced older women seducing nubile teenage boys or much-younger men. Even the most innocuous of male coming of age films of the 80s couldn't seem to resist throwing in an enticing, mature, aggressive older woman into the mix to confound the male protagonist. After Lessons hit, we soon got a wave of similarly-themed films like Homework (1982), Class (1983) and My Tutor (1983). Back in the day, these were sometimes called May-December films or romances, which makes them sound pretty classy. Nowadays these would probably be called either MILF Movies or Cougar Movies. They're Playing with Fire fits that mold, but it was also actually a rather ingenious idea, at least in concept., as it melds the lucrative older seductress movie with the lucrative slasher flick / murder mystery. Had this film dropped just a few years earlier when both of those subgenres were just a little hotter, perhaps it would have done a bit better in theaters. Then again, maybe not.
The very voluptuous and sexy Sybil Danning is the star of this one, so they at least got that much right. Born in Austria some time between 1947 and 1952 (dates fluctuate depending on one's source), Danning's perfect 36-24-36 measurements had previously been seen in a number of Euro exploitation films throughout the early 70s; primarily sex comedies with such bawdy titles as Loves of a French Pussycat and Naughty Nymphs. She eventually moved up the ranks to more mainstream films throughout the decade, often in supporting roles. After migrating to Hollywood and landing a lead role as a courageous Valkyrie warrior in the Roger Corman production Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Danning then tried to re-brand herself as a tough action heroine. Entertainment Weekly dubbed her "The World's Number One Female Action Star," she hosted her own line of Adventure Videos and tried her best to cultivate a powerful female image, but some naysayers attempted to undermine her by claiming this was at odds with all of her nude film and print work. After being criticized for her 10-page pictorial in Playboy magazine, Sybil silenced critics by stating "It wasn't a passive layout. There is a big difference between projecting a come-n-get-it attitude and an attitude that makes demands. Besides, I work hard on my body and, if I want to exploit it, that's my right. I'm in charge!"
Personally I'm with Sybil on this one and don't at all agree with the sentiment that a woman cannot be both confident in her body / sexuality and believable in an action movie. Mainstream audiences, on the other hand, just weren't ready for it. Even someone like Cynthia Rothrock, a real-life martial arts champ with more certifiable ass-kicking credentials than just about any major male movie hero of the past 40 years, was never able to rise in the ranks in Hollywood either. The moral of the story seemed to be that male action heroes starred in big budget blockbusters while female action heroines starred in low-budget (and usually low-grade) B movies. If Rothrock (who's not a great actress but certainly no worse than the majority of male action stars) couldn't headline major movies, there was no way Sybil could have really pulled it off either, though both ladies deserve a lot of credit for at least trying.
Danning's is also unfortunately a career pockmarked by bad breaks, including losing out on playing the female lead in the James Bond flick Octopussy (1983) when the producer deemed her too tough for the part and then losing the "Vazquez" role in the box-office smash hit Aliens (1986) thanks to British Equity rules. Instead, Sybil ended up mostly in poor B films that came and went with little attention. In between, she kept herself afloat by making the best of what was offered. Even in the world of sexploitation, you don't have to play the roles on your back, so to speak. There are usually assertive and strong female roles in these films as well and, as far as I can tell, Danning attempted to find these parts in the meantime.
In a January 1986 interview with Roger Ebert, Danning briefly discussed her image and career intent and was very conscious at how Fire was perhaps at odds with the new direction she was then trying to take her career: "I made a movie called 'Playing with Fire,' catering to the young audience. I was a high-school teacher who seduced my student as part of a murder plot. I thought it would pay my bills while we worked on what we really wanted to do. The picture played one week. I called the exhibitors. They said it opened great and then it died. They said the audience came to see me kick ass, and they were disappointed." I too was disappointed, but not because Sybil didn't kick ass in it. It's just not a very good movie.
At Oceanview College, student Jay Roberts (boyish-looking Private Lessons star Eric Brown... yet again), like every other guy in his class, understandably has a huge crush on his sexy literature professor Diane Stevens (Danning). Imagine Jay's surprise when she offers him a side job helping to paint her yacht, where he can ogle her lounging around in a very revealing little bikini. And imagine his surprise when she coerces him inside the cabin, whips off her top and has sex with him, coyly confiding that “no one will ever know.” And to top that off, she even offers to lend him the money he needs to fix his car. Too good to be true? Yeah... pretty much. It turns out that Diane is actually married to Michael (a clean-cut Andrew Prine), who was her teacher at one point in time, and the upper middle class lifestyle they're currently living just ain't for her. Prior to marriage, Michael promised to show her the world, but they haven't actually gone anywhere and the two haven't even made love in a year. The problem? Michael's elitist, bitchy mother Lillian (K.T. Stevens) and senile, wheelchair-bound grandmother Lettie (Margaret Wheeler) both hate Diane with a passion because they perceive her as a gold-digger and threaten to write Michael out of the will if he doesn't divorce her.
Diane and Michael enlist the annoyingly naïve collegian's help in breaking into the family mansion just to scare the two greedy old biddies so they'll be deemed mentally incompetent. Instead, things don't go as planned after Jay is discovered and chased out and then a masked psycho sneaks in and murders both women with a shotgun. These killings are just the first in a series of murders to erupt around campus and there are a variety of suspects. Aside from Diane and Michael and their big inheritance scheme, there's pretty blonde Cynthia (Beth Scheffell), who was recently dumped by Jay and decides to attempt blackmail him about his affair with Diane, and there's Jay's roommate Martin (Paul Clemens), who has the hots for Cynthia but keeps getting rejected. And let us not forget creepy gardener George (Gene Bicknell), who was having an affair with the dead mother which may, in fact, have been an incestuous one.
I wish I could say this was a good, lively, sleazy 80s guilty pleasure but it's not. While many things go wrong here it's made with enough general competence to avoid being unintentionally funny and just comes off as bland in the process. The acting is pretty bad at times and none of the characters are likable. There's lots of needless time padding, usually centering around Jay's dumb college buddies. The score, a mix of generic TV movie instrumentals and God awful pop-rock power ballads, sucks. The writing and structure of the whole mystery is poor; in fact, all of the suspects ultimately end up just being tossed to the side in favor of a completely out-of-left-field resolution. All this really has going for it are Danning's steamy nude scenes (which at least give us something nice to look at every 20 minutes or so) and some mild slasher violence. There's also one genuine WTF moment when the killer pops out of a closet dressed as Santa Claus (!) and proceeds to beat a girl to death with a baseball bat. The movie could have used more of that and less of everything else. Except Danning. She was good.
Gary Graver was the cinematographer, the title theme song is sung by Arnetia Walker and the cast includes Dominick Brascia (Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning) as fat guy comic relief, Alvy Moore as Jay's grumpy boss and Marlene Schmidt (the director's wife) in a cameo as a gas station customer. She and Avedis also produced and co-wrote the film, often pilfering from their previous screenplays for The Teacher (1974) and MORTUARY (1983) in process. The DVD is from Anchor Bay.