Long lost “ski-sploitation” thriller is ripe for rediscovery

In the pantheon of stories distressingly over adapted and ripped-off for cinema, Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game sits high on the list. The story tells the tale of a wealthy hunt-happy lunatic who shifts his interests into stalking humans to be his next trophies, setting his “guests” loose on his remote property to give them a sporting head start. It’s a great premise that has both an allegorical sting, a haunting anti-hunting soul and both hardcore action and blood-chilling horror.

And while there have been a handful of “legitimate” versions of the tome made (most impressively, the 1932 same-named Fay Wray riff), it’s the ripoffs that are the most fun, everything from 1982’s Turkey Shoot to 1993’s Hard Target to 1994’s Surviving the Game, movies that freely steal the premise and pervert it to their own ends. Lost amidst this slew of awesomely low-grade films is the totally bonkers 1974 sleaze-fest The Ultimate Thrill (aka The Ultimate Chase). The movie is directed by the late Robert Butler, a veteran TV hack (and we’re not saying that to be derogatory) who steered episodes of everything from the ’60s Batman show to Kung Fu to The Waltons to the small screen. But The Ultimate Thrill is one of his few feature film undertakings and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like a TV movie, albeit one armed with a bigger budget that presumably paid for the hospital bills for the myriad hot dogging skiing stuntman who fly off mountaintops like clockwork.

The Ultimate Thrill stars soap opera legend Eric Braeden (Victor on The Young and the Restless and who appeared as the villain sans mustache in 1971’s Escape From the Planet of the Apes) as Roland Parlay, a power-mad business man with a gorgeous trophy wife (played by the stunning Britt Ekland, from the previous years’ cult masterpiece The Wicker Man) who combines business and pleasure at a Colorado ski resort. Initially appearing charming, it soon becomes clear that Parlay is a sadist, a privileged maniac who treats his wife Michelle like another piece of his property and who is so soul dead that he becomes addicted to destructive behaviors. One of these transgressions is setting up scenarios in which his gorgeous missus is left as bait for horny men. Though Michelle rebuffs any passes made by anyone other than her husband, Parlay perverts these scenarios in order to make the clumsy suitors his prey. First he obliterates hapless ski bum Michael Blodget, chasing him around the mountain in his helicopter before bashing him up and murdering him in cold blood. Then he tries the same thing on the savvier Barry Brown, who gives the tycoon a real run for his money.

In between Parlay playing these “dangerous games,” he — and several other unnamed members of the supporting cast — ski. They ski a lot, in fact. If you’ve seen Bruno Mattei’s Hell of the Living Dead, you might remember all the damned stock footage of wild animals mincing around the brush. It’s kind of like that here, but with skiers flailing around in slow motion. The scenery is lovely (the movie was shot on location in Vail) and the ski scenes become almost hypnotic, meditative even, all set to the strains of Ed Townsend’s delirious and amazing lounge music score.

But what makes The Ultimate Thrill so mesmerizing is its leads. As Mr and Mrs. Parlay, Braeden and Ekland offer complex performances that are unsettling in their suggestiveness. For example, after Parlay kills his first victim (that we see, anyway), he returns to his chalet to punish his wife for her imaginary indiscretions. His cultured veneer drops, he slut-shames her, beats her and then rapes her. And, like with Susan George in Straw Dogs, it appears Ekland is liking the rape. Or at least has made peace with this being her “new normal”, the price to pay for living a life of luxury. Is Michelle in on her husband’s sick, murderous games? Does she get off on it? The movie never spells it out and it’s all the more unsettling for it.

I don’t think The Ultimate Thrill has ever been officially on DVD. I bought it at a junk store on VHS for $5 when I was a teenager. A release via the long-defunct budget label Star Classics, with a hand painted box (that I used to think was ugly but I now think is really cool). Video Gems also released the film on “Big Box” VHS, in a much sexier edition. But so far, outside of the odd bootleg, It’s a damned hard film to find. Shame, that. The Ultimate Thrill is a flawed, weird, exciting and morally confusing thriller with great performances and a stunning location. What more do you need from your art/trash cinema? Here’s hoping a prestigious  boutique Blu-ray label digs it up and gives it the proper restoration it richly deserves…

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