CAUTION: CONTAINS EXPLICIT MATERIAL
After the glossy makeover that Scream had given to the genre, the slasher film came dangerously close to becoming acceptable, safe and almost cool. All of the movies that followed in its wake had toned down the gore aspect and had instead gone for the ‘unknown killer stalks a group of ridiculously attractive kids’ approach. Thankfully, the torture porn cycle that occurred a few years back with the release of The Devil’s Rejects and Saw brought back a certain brutality and sleaze that the genre had sadly lacked since the early eighties. But, with both filmmakers and fans growing increasingly obsessed with the nostalgia of that era, it was inevitable that they would eventually turn to the video nasties for inspiration. One such filmmaker was Ryan Nicholson, who had made the transition from special effects to directing with the forty-five minute short Torched and the Hostel-like Live Feed. His most acclaimed work to date is the sex and violence exploitation flick Gutterballs, which blended such extreme genres as giallo, slasher and rape/revenge to fashion for the horror fans which felt that The New York Ripper and Maniac were a little tame.
Nicholson had first conceived the idea prior to shooting his first feature after deciding that a bowling alley would provide a perfect environment for a slasher flick. Having previously gained experience as an effect artist, Nicholson had become the chief filmmaker of Vancouver-based production company Plotdigger Films, which had made its debut with Live Feed in 2006. From the outset, his intentions with the script was to fashion a rape/revenge story in the mould of La casa sperduta nel parco (The House on the Edge of the Park) and I Spit on Your Grave and transport it into a slasher-type setting. An additional element to the story was by featuring a killer slaughtering his semi-naked victims in a style akin to the giallo films of the seventies – with the exception of the mask, the killer’s leather clothes are somewhat reminiscent of the antagonists from Massimo Dallamano’s La polizia chiede aiuto (What Have They Done to Your Daughters?) and Andrea Bianchi’s Nude per l’assassino (Strip Nude for Your Killer).
Having grown up in the eighties, both the fashion and the movies of that era played a big part in helping to shape the themes and feel of Gutterballs. Nicholson’s key influences during the writing of the script were not only slashers such as Happy Birthday to Me and Maniac (different mock posters for Gutterballs would later homage these) and such notorious rape/revenge flicks as Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. In fact, whether it was intentional or not, perhaps the film that Nicholson’s story shared the most similarities with was Savage Streets, an exploitation thriller from 1984, starring Linda Blair and Linnea Quigley and directed by Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning’s Danny Steinmann. Both films would feature a group of cocky girls who infuriate a local gang, resulting in one of them being brutally raped. Eventually, the perpetrators would incur the wrath of a vigilante.
Each evening, two rival gangs meet to compete at a late night bowl-a-rama at the neon-lit Xcalibur Bowling Centre. One of the gang is led by the vicious and obnoxious Steve (Alastair Gamble), who constantly bullies and intimidates the girls from the other team. The main cause of friction is Lisa (Candice Lewald), who had only agreed to be Steve’s prom date back in high school so she could sleep with his then-best friend, Jamie (Nathan Witte). His hatred for Lisa is hardly a secret, calling her a ‘stupid fucking cunt’ when she seems unsure which kind of ball to bowl with. One of her friends, Sarah (Mihola Terzic), angers him even more by stating how he is still sore about how he never scored with her. Another friend, ‘tranny’ Sam (Jimmy Blais), challenges Steve’s ‘experience’, resulting in him and his thuggish friends grabbing him/her and ripping open her dress to reveal her fake implants, whilst labeling her a ‘fucking tuck-in.’
By this point, Nicholson has already broken several taboos. A close-up of a Lewald’s shaven vagina as she bends over in a short skirt is a rather graphic image for a modern-day horror movie, and the several homophobic references directed at Sam (who, after viewing Lisa’s crotch from behind, states ‘I wish I could go commando, but I have to wait until after the operation’) may leave several viewers a little uncomfortable. But it was Nicholson’s intentions to make his script as explicit as possible, in an attempt to capture the sleazy and excessive nature of seventies and eighties cinema. An added, unintentional, humiliation for Sam was with her wig falling off, a reminder to all present that this was little more than a man pretending to be a woman. This had been an accident during filming; with the wig being removed not a part of Nicholson’s original script, but it made such an impression on him that he decided to leave it in.
Leaving the centre, Lisa realizes that she has left her purse and heads back inside, discretely sneaking passed the janitor, who is too busy polishing the lanes to hear her enter. But as she makes her way upstairs, Steve and his friends suddenly appear with her bag and grab her, dragging her inside the games room and throwing her on top of a pinball machine, where Steve savagely beats and rapes her. Watching on disgusted, their nerdy friend Patrick (Trevor Gemma) insists that they thought they were just going to scare her. Once done, he violently throws her to the floor where she smacks her head on the ground. Nicholson has stated that, as unpleasant as this scene was to both film and watch, he felt it was necessary to not sugar-cote the rape scene and instead show just how savage these kinds of attacks are. But there is no denying just how disturbing this scene is. In fact, it almost feels out of place with the rest of the film, as the remaining ninety or so minutes could be best described as a guilty pleasure, whilst the eight-minute rape sequence is nauseating and leaves the viewer feeling dirty.
Once three of the gang have raped her, it is then the turn of their nerdy friend Patrick (Trevor Gemma), who has spent the entire incident protesting against what they were doing. Refusing to take part, Steve instead demands that he rapes her with a bowling pin, much to the disgust of his friends, even threatening to insert it into Patrick is he continues to argue. Eventually, fearing for himself, he picks up the pin, only for Steve to order him to use the ‘big end.’ Finally he gives in and, after apologizing to her, forces it deep inside, causing blood to pour out. They then discard her like some used sex toy and leave her on top of the pool table. This is by far the most disgusting and disturbing sequence in Gutterballs and, thankfully, the only rape scene. From then on, it is back to the eighties exploitation feel, with some truly memorable kills to follow.
There are few horror films which will divide audiences as much as Gutterballs. There are so many aspects of the movie that are either excellent or truly awful it is impossible to describe it as a great film, but it is undeniably fun and outrageous. One common criticism often directed at the film is the overuse of profanity, with almost every other word being ‘fuck,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘pussy’ or a gay-bashing slur. Very few of the characters are developed enough for the viewer to really care about them, although Nicholson has claimed that this was intentional so their deaths are more entertaining than emotional. The film does look relatively cheap, but the use of the setting (a multi-million dollar bowling centre in Surrey, British Columbia) helps raise the production value considerably. The use of neon lights helps generate an air of sleaze throughout the film which gives the picture an eighties look. Most of the acting is poor but this somehow lends to its grindhouse charm, particularly Gamble’s scene-chewing villain and Ellis’ Clint Eastwood-like authority figure.
By far the film’s greatest assets are its funky score and gruesome special effects, provided by Plotdigger’s in-house workshop Life to Death FX. Gutterballs boasts some truly memorable deaths, with the highlight being the ’69,’ where the woman is choked on the man’s penis as he is suffocated by her crotch. Elsewhere, faces are eviscerated, heads removed in one way or another and genitals are cut to pieces. For those bored of watching Michael Myers stabbing his victims with butcher knives and want something a little different, Gutterballs is a shameless exploitation flick which features wall-to-wall nudity, gore and swearing which will alienate some horror fans whilst more than satisfying others. ‘Subtlety’ seems to be a word that Nicholson is unfamiliar with, and in an age of repetitive studio-produced films this may come as a refreshing change to some. Gutterballs is not high art – it’s not even a particularly well-made movie – but it is so outrageous and extreme that, had it been released in the early eighties, would have guaranteed to have found its way onto the ‘video nasty’ list in the UK. Nicholson is set to return to similar territory with his next feature, Hanger, whilst one of the producers, Dan Walton, will make his directorial debut with the backwoods slasher Bind in the near future. Viewer discretion is most certainly advised, but there is something about Gutterballs that improves on every viewing.