Monday, October 15, 2012

The Modern Grindhouse Part 3: GUTTERBALLS

When slasher films literally dominated the box office in the early 1980s, it was much to the chagrin of the professional critics of the day, with likely none more vocal about his disgust than Roger Ebert. While I disagree with his assement that films like Friday the 13th Part 2, Maniac and I Spit On Your Grave were "dangerous films for dangerous minds", there is an undercurrent of mindless savagery in the films that doesn't always neatly fit into the post-modern stereotypes put down by both genre researchers and, perhaps most notably, Wes Craven through the 1990s. There's plenty of praise to be had for the blatant dissection in attempting to understand, in both a primal and sociological level, what the human mind finds so appealing about watching a masked lunatic pick off what would typically be the story's heroes one by one, but a lot of the most basic "slasher movies are about the punishment of sin" fall apart, at least under scrutiny, and particularly if we include the wide swathe of decent films that didn't happen to inspire a dozen sequels. Certainly there's a lot of constants and themes in these films, but one of the most undeniable constants in the post-Friday the 13th landscape was just how fucking mean they were. Everyone loves to talk about Jason Vorhees as some kind of Reagan-era boogeyman punishing kids for premarital sex and smoking dope, and perhaps there's some truth to that as the sequels got more inclined to wink at the cameras and make jokes about "that monster picture on the late show" and all that, but let's back that bullshit up to Part 2...

Aha, some of you already know what scene I'm talking about, don't you? The premarital lovers being speared through mid-coitus in a scene taken right out of Bay of Blood?  Nope. Because while that iconic double-murder does seemingly support the "serial murderer as a force of brutal conservative righteousness", it's completely undermined by the scene right before it! Jason Vorhees also kills the kid in the wheelchair, clubs him right in the back of the head with a machete, for no fucking reason at all. The kid wasn't whackin' off or shrooming, he was just lamenting how much his life kinda sucks and BAM! Blade to the goddamn face. (Yes, Jason actually stabs him in the back of the head so furiously the blade is immediately stuck to his face. Go watch it if you don't believe me!)

Jason wasn't alone in punishing absolutely everyone because FUCK YOU, either: In My Bloody Valentine, The Miner takes his vengeance on the kooky Scooby-Doo inspired bartender, who's actually trying to help his cause in a non-violent way, by putting a pick-axe through his eye. In The Prowler, a douche waiting for his girl to get out of the shower gets a knife through the back of his head, but it doesn't kill him instantly: Instead, the masked killer twists the blade and holds his mouth closed as we watch the life drain out of him for what feels like an eternity. But perhaps the most mean-spirited of the bunch was The Burning, which gives Cropsey - himself a supposed sadist to begin with - every reason to fall into the black abyss of madness when, at the end of the firs reel, the doctors who have patched him back together after a hideous prank gone wrong "I'm sorry, but... the skin grafts just wouldn't take." The Burning especially gives no quarter, savagely murdering children who were completely innocent of any wrongdoing, while simultaneously letting the snot-nosed punks who wronged him in the first act get away with it up until the final reel. There is no love, no fairness and no mercy to be found in the early wave of mainstream slasher films, and they kept ratcheting up that brutal spite until there was nothing left but to parody it all by the middle of the decade, and finally let the monsters rest until Michael Bay decided it was time to dust the lot of them off for a round of increasingly god-awful remakes. Do all of you realize how close we were to getting a remake of Rosemary's Baby? Too close for comfort, that's for goddamn sure.

Why do I bring all of this up? Because that lost and almost divine sense of bewildering cruelty is the sole energy that drives Ryan Nicholson's 2008 throwback slasher movie GUTTERBALLS. As if posters openly mocking Maniac, Halloween, Happy Birthday to Me and others weren't a tip, the film is a dedicated to being a lost piece of 80s Americana. Taking place entirely in a single bowling alley with a vintage soundtrack and bathed in the harsh neon lighting of nostalgia,the storyline itself is simple enough: Taking place over the course of two nights - both the warm up and final round between a trio of rock 'n' roll misfits and preppy assholes at the Balls to the Wall lane after hours. The ball tossers and a gaggle of groupies show up, but a mysterious contestant known only as "BBK", though only a few of them know what horrible acts soiled the arcade upstairs the night before, and as BBK lights up the scoreboard it's possible that nobody will ever live to tell the world what happened...

Slasher films in particular have been described as ode to misogyny, but that's a dramatic oversimplification of the Freudian way in which viewers univerally react to the sight of a larger, domineering male figure taking what he wants - directly sexual in nature or not - from a smaller, weaker female. Part of the appeal of most slasher films is in the inevitable inversion of this very concept, with the emergence of the "final girl" finally standing up to her attacker and turning the tables with the same bladed, phallic tools of the trade that Jason and Michael and their multitude of imitators used (though obviously, not all slasher films stuck to the post-modern numbers Scream applied to them as a whole). Granted this all traces back to its overtly sexualized roots in the roots of the genre's predecessors - particularly Psycho, and the multitude of dysfunctional giallo killers "Mrs. Bates" inspired - but its presence is typically both implicit and symbolic, only spilling over into the blatantly erotic-grotesque in later, satyrical works like Jason Goes to Hell and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2...  for better or worse, Gutterballs fists the notion of symbolism into a bloody, twitching pulp.  The threadbare storyline is packed with a never ending torrent of misogyny, homophobia, petty insults and thinly veiled threats make up the vast majority of the dialog. I'm not exaggerating when I say that the word "fuck" over 500 times over the course of 96 minutes. It's hatred of absolutely everything is as boundless as it is sincere, with the rocker kids treated as disposable idiots, and even the victim of the savage violation that takes up over ten excruciating minutes is reduced to little more than an angry victim by the end of the film. I Spit On Your Grave may not be a perfect film, but it uses its hatred and fury to build toward something thematically important; in GUTTERBALLS, it's just the fabric that binds the increasingly over the top set pieces together, the blood that flows through BBK himself.

Unfortunately, that spite and anger becomes increasingly hard to watch - not because it's crossing boundaries and shocking the squares, but because after a while hearing the same douchebag scream at his friends to find his whores and get him a beer, you just stop giving even half a fuck about any of it. It's easy to shrug off the victims in slasher films as disposable and interchangeable walking set pieces, and sometimes that couldn't be more true, but when you're actively waiting for everyone to die just so they'll shut the fuck up already, something's gone horribly wrong. I get that the point was to make these characters unlikeable, but there's a way to create villains that are nasty and still fun to watch, something this film never seems to understand. With literally an hour of the film being oversexed meatheads screaming juvenile insults at each other, the rad licensed vintage soundtrack and over the top throwback fashions can't keep the film from being a long, humorless slog between the over the top violence. Those absolutely vile fatalities gleefully smeared on the filth-covered bathroom walls and are pretty impressive in their clever savagery, don't get me wrong, the only real pleasant surprises come in the last 20 minutes when the film shifts gears and reveals the identity of BBK... among several other factors that have been obscured until then. I'd love to recommend the film on the merits of it being the single most fury-fueled slasher film, but... honestly, I just can't. The film is tedious, at best, and it probably would have made a decent 30 minute short, but at feature length it's mostly one scene after another of annoying asshole trying to out-asshole each other.

Also, can someone explain to me why we see BBK existing before there's a reason for him to seek any vengeance? I'm sure that opening credits montage was meant to take place between the first and second night, but the way it's plopped into the film it just makes absolutely no sense. A shame; the montage itself actually kind of cool, it's just a dumb-ass place for it. Was the rape originally meant to be shown in flashback, maybe? Bah, now I'm just overthinking it...

I honestly think even the most easygoing viewer is going to be watching with clenched fists, just waiting for everyone to get their goddamn eyes stabbed out so they can move on with their lives. Writer-Director Ryan Nicholson has successfully come up with a stylishly satisfying and increasingly offensive love-letter to the 1980s extreme gore scene, but he didn't find a way to make it half as likable as the films he clearly loves so much. I've not seen his earlier feature, Live Feed, but I honestly hope he hooks up with a competent character writer for the Gutterballs sequel called (what else?) GUTTERBALLS 2: BALLS DEEP. There's a lot of individual scenes to like in this film, but it all falls apart like wet toilet paper when we're left with absolutely nobody to root for except a killer with no personality. On the off chance that you're reading this Ryan, I promise I'm not trying to be a dick, but please, go watch some Frank Hennenlotter and Peter Jackson films before you start shooting the sequel; those two always have a sort of kitschy likability to their characters, and that's something this film desperately needed. That's the one thing missing from Gutterballs, and if you can improve on that, your films will probably be a lot of low-brow fun... as it stands I'm recommending it as a cultural oddity of Rage Squared. And it's not like there aren't some stunning exploitation films made in the last few years that can claim to be doing much the same thing.

Not helping much is the cast, which is consistently dreadful. In the last film we looked at - Dear God No!, if you're just joining us - the cast was generally "meh" while the lead put in a performance that was understated but totally believable, and worked fantastically in the confines of the film itself, particularly when you factor in that even if he DID sucked the film would have kinda' held together. Sadly, everyone in front of the camera in Gutterballs sucks really, really hard. Now I admit, being a yank from New England I'll always think Canadian accents are ever so slightly hilarious, but it doesn't fucking matter; everyone is at the same level you'd expect from either a middle of the road Seymore Butts video, or a bottom of the barrel highschool production of Rent. It's hard to say if it's just the dreck posturing dialog they were given, or if they all just suck that fucking hard naturally, but the only one of them who occasionally comes off as even slightly funny is the grouchy old janitor, played by Dan Ellis. Even then, he's not a particualrly believable or even likable character; he's just a breath of marginal dependability from a bunch of twenty-somethings he can't help but outshine. Candace Lewald also gets a pass for clearly having been waxed less than 24 hours before they shot the opening scene, but if she were an out of work pornstar trying to transition back into a life that didn't involve trading one kind of blow for another, I wouldn't bat an eye. I should be ashamed for assuming these sorts of things out loud, as that's probably a downright cruel oversimplification for a lovely human being, but she really, really sucked.

I won't fault the film's aesthetic, however. Lit almost exclusively with black lights and neon, covered in fashions that would make the kids in Breakin' hang their heads in shame, a soundtrack chock full of Harlequin and Loverboy tracks, the film's look and sound is pure radical chic, only betraying its modern roots with a brief mention of cellphones that seems to have slipped under everyone's common-sense radar. I'm much more willing to forgive the presence of a couple 90s arcade cabinets and some modern Pepsi logos, but unless your joke is going to be pulling an 8 pound brick of a cell phone out of your back pocket, leave your cellphone gags in the '00s, will ya? For that matter, it never explicitly says the film takes place in 1987, but if it doesn't... well, they've missed a ripe chance to either point out how unintentionally hilarious the horrors of the period were, or play up that people are so disappointed with the modern world that they'd rather spend their time mired in a faux-vintage existence. The film does neither, and instead seems to use the 80s aesthetic because... well, just because. That's fine, I guess, but when other throwback films in recent memory, like Let Me In and The Devil's Rejects, take full advantage of their old school setting it's disappointing for only the most superficial aspects of the era to be represented here.

And yet, for all the frustration I've had sitting through this film, I wouldn't doubt if a part of my dissatisfaction subconsciously comes down to the fact that virtually nobody on the planet has actually seen the "Final Cut". See, the American DVD from TLA Releasing (which appears to be out of print?) runs 96 minutes, and does feature plenty of frontal nudity, most of it in the form of surprisingly impressive rubbery prosthetics. This was sold as the "HARDCORE BLOOD EDITION" in Austria because the German FSK board demanded over 25 minutes of cuts, which was later waived down to a mere 14 minutes and change... but that's not the whole story. Last year, Ryan Nicholson released the extended "Pin-Etration Edition" exclusively through Plot Digger's website, which promised even more graphic sexual violence, as well as some 'outrageous' insert bonuses. It was originally announced as limited 669 copies, but sales were evidently so dire he dropped it down to a mere 69 hand-numbered copies. I didn't hear of this until it was sold out, and the usual hives of scum and villainy that is The Internet have turned up nothing, so while my understanding is that the "Pin-Itrated Edition" splices in hardcore shots similar to Thriller: A Cruel Picture, I can't actually confirm that's the case myself. Man, how long has it been since that's happened... part of me thinks the already 10-minute-plus gang rape that sets up the rest of the film is unpleasant enough, but considering how much of the film is intentionally designed to be in ferociously bad taste, I can't blame Ryan for going down the only obvious road left for the film to take. I mean, for crying out loud, the 'softcore' version features a couple being choked to death with their own... well, you get the point.

This DVD-R has actually sold for $255 on eBay.

If, after every caveat I've set out above, you're still interested in picking up a copy of this frustrating piece of potential and can live without it having hardcore porn spliced into a scene that looks like borderline violent porn anyway, the TLA Balls Out DVD is as good as it's going to get: presented in an oddly squished 2.0:1 aspect ratio and presented interlaced, it looks about as good as a film shot on NTSC DV is going to, and I can't imagine an upscaled Blu-ray is either likely or especially necessary. You get the original trailer, director's commentary, a 5.1 mix and the "Behind the Balls" documentary. Germany gets a set of 4 galleries and the Nordic DVD includes "Behind the Bag", but so far nobody seems to have gotten the rights to the "Bare Boner Footage" included on the Pin-Etration Edition, and knowing that all uncut PAL releases are interlaced standards conversions, I'd recommend tracking down the TLA disc above any currently available import. You can get it STRAIGHT FROM PLOTDIGGER, along with the uncut "Special Colostomy Bag Edition" of Ryan's follow up film, HANGER, an ode to abortion monsters everywhere, before it too disappears into the ether forever.

Ryan Nicholson seems like a nice, laid back guy in all of the behind-the-scenes footage in this film. He's quite an accomplished special effects make up guru and I don't doubt that he's got a fun, nasty film or two in him... I just think this one is tedious as hell, and considering how fun the premise sounded, that's really a shame. Avoid, unless bowling pin sodomy happens to be your personal fetish.


Nicholous said...

Really enjoying your Modern Grindhouse series. I've really been debating this one for awhile, eyeballng the TLA release at the lone mom+pop shop near me.

I guess, despite your tepid review, I need to at least see it. Do you have any info about the German "hardcore blood edition"? It claims to have XXX footage, and a 100 minute runtime (in PAL I assume).

Nicholous said...

Oops, just re-read the article. So, I guess the running time and XX claims are hyperbole.