FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
This film was a favorite sexploitation flick of the 1980s, definitely in the category of "they don't make 'em like that anymore." Director Howard Avedis and co-writer Marlene Schmdt shared producer-credits on three films in this "older woman-younger man" vein, but of the three, FIRE is certainly the most well-remembered.
Unlike the other two erotic thrillers-- 1972's THE STEPMOTHER and 1974's THE TEACHER, for what that's worth-- FIRE works in a "perilous psycho" of the uncanny kind. Not a few reviews online express dismay at seeing the erotic adventures of college-boy Jay (Eric Brown) and his sexy teacher Diane (Sybil Danning) interrupted by some (admittedly meager) psycho-slayings, but the psycho's presence does up the ante a little. True, nothing else in the film competes with the charms of Danning doffing her duds, but since the plots of these thrillers are usually a mess, it's nice to have a few extra tidbits to puzzle over.
As seen in many a noir movie, Diane has an agenda in sexing up Jay: to make him stupid so that he'll cooperate with the plot that she and her scheming husband have cooked up. (Possibly the nudity is supposed to have a similar effect on audiences?) Though Diane and hubby Michael (Andrew Prine) have what look like pretty good college-instructor jobs, Michael's mom and grandmom have loads of money but won't share it. Jay gets talked into pretending to burglarize the old ladies' mansion, which is supposed to spook the ladies so badly that they allow themselves to be institutionalized, which in turn will somehow lead to the power couple getting ahold of all that lovely money.
The plan goes badly in two ways, one of which shows that Michael must not know his own mother very well. Rather than getting petrified, Michael's mom takes out her trusty rifle and tries to blow Jay's head off: college boy just barely escapes with his life. Then, in a twist for which either Michael or Diane may have cooked up alone, a ski-masked killer invades the house after Jay's gone, and shoots both old ladies to death. Michael's response when he finds out is twofold: (1) he accuses Jay of the crime, and then tells him not to go to the police, and (2) he conceals the bodies of his mother and grandmother, and tells the caretaker that they've gone on vacation, even taking their yippy little poodle with them. (In one of the film's most pleasing brain-fried moments, the poodle appears again near the film's conclusion-- gagged and bound by someone, presumably Michael, since one presumes the psycho-killer would have just offed the noisy mutt.)
And yes, that's my big spoiler here: neither Diane nor Michael is responsible for the murders. They're perpetrated by (1) Michael's long-lost brother Martin, (2) who has been brought back to the States by the scheming caretaker, and (3) who also has a fatal disease that makes him violent, and (4) who is also Jay's apartment-roommate! The sublime idiocy of this "big reveal" is so daffy that its entertainment value at least comes in second after Sybil's seduction scenes. Next to this, even half-witted junk like INNER SANCTUM II looks well-thought-out by comparison.
Martin's insanity and terminal condition are meant to explain why he no longer gave a damn about getting the family inheritance, which is what the caretaker-guy wanted. But they don't explain why he dons a Santa Claus suit to knock off one of Jay's fellow students, a former girlfriend trying to break up Jay and Diane.
The way this murder-scene takes place, one has to assume that Martin, in his secret identity of the roommate, knows that student Cynthia's sticking her nose into things, because she's told him what she plans to do. But there's nothing in the script to indicate why he would dress up in a Santa-suit to club the girl to death. If it weren't for this scene, I wouldn't consider the menace of ski-masked Martin with his rifle to go beyond the limits of the naturalistic.
I should say a word about Michael, who not only doesn't mourn about his female relatives too much, but seems content to keep their bodies hidden somewhere or other. His main worry seems to be that Diane continues to make whoopee with Jay, with not a lot of concern about what's going to happen to him when someone checks on his relations' overly long vacation-- not to mention the fact that he would be the most logical suspect, as the sole heir.
But then, it's almost refreshing to watch a thriller in which no one seems to be thinking about real-world consequences. This even extends to the ending, for after Martin's demise, hot teacher Diane-- who's apparently got all the money with no awkward questions raised by the cops or the courts-- spirits Jay off on a cruise, for what will apparently be loads and loads of May-December sex. The "downer" of marriage is not mentioned, thus leading to the conclusion that Jay will become the contented if unpaid gigolo of his former teacher. (Similar figures in Avedis' earlier films seem to be standard Freudian mother-substitutes, but that vibe doesn't come across here, given that the film doesn't even allude to Jay having HAD parents of any sort.)
Still, I must admit that a film that ends with the promise of endless sex with Sybil Danning may not be good, but it certainly can't be all bad.