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RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes
• Commentary w/ writer/director Ryan Nicholson
• Behind-the-scenes featurette
• Trailers and stills
“Don’t mess with me. I know at least seven ways to kill a man with a bowling alley.”
Alastair Gamble, Mihola Terzic, Jeremy Beland, Candice Lewald.
You know the coolest place to hang out when you’re a twentysomething in the 80s? A bowling alley. It’s got everything: black lights, beer, an arcade, even a vicious murderer.
Two rival bowling teams meet after closing time one night to play a few frames, settle a bet, and sling sexual insults at one another. A fight breaks out, delaying the match until the following night. After most of her team heads off, a Girl Who Sadly Cannot Afford Panties (Candice Lewald) goes back inside for her forgotten purse, where the rival team rapes her on and with various pieces of furniture.
Had they perfected gaydar technology in the 80s?
The next night, the teams square off again, each eager to shut their opponents up and down. But none of them realize that the game they’re about to play is far less civilized than their precious game of tenpins, though possibly more manly, and definitely more of a spectator sport.
I’m not well-educated when it comes to exploitation flicks. I wasn’t raised on them, so they don’t strike any sort of nostalgic chord in me. It’s not hard to recognize the appeal, though, since they’re designed from the ground up with no other purpose than to appeal, as I understand it. Tell an engaging story? Nah. Stretch and exercise the cinematic vocabulary? Nope. Challenge the skills and talents of cast and crew? No— okay, well that’s not really fair. The folks in charge of gore, at least, had their work cut out for them on Gutterballs. Tease and fascinate mankind’s baser impulses in order to sell tickets? Hey, cool!
I don’t know that I have these particular instincts.
I’ve heard, too often, that such-and-such a movie is enjoyable if “you switch your brain off.” That always sounds vaguely insulting, but I’ve got to wonder if there’s something to it when it comes to flicks like Gutterballs. There’s nothing here to sustain any higher functioning, analytical parts of the brain; there isn’t intended to be. In a way, this is kind of like trying to review a DVD of a cooking show. There’s an audience for this type of entertainment, and they already know who they are. What’s more, because there’s not much to analyze, there’s precious little for me to criticize.
(Either that or I’m just rusty from not having written anything critical for a couple of years. That’s probably the safer bet. Let’s go with that.)
The horror genre has a bit of exploitation naturally built in, since boobs and blood work as natural attractors for an audience. Those aren’t the sole reasons to be fans of horror, though. What draws me into the genre has always been the simplified morality plays. Occasionally the plots and characters display a refreshing complexity, but most of my favorite horror movies take the shapes of cautionary tales. Gutterballs gets its momentum from what appears to be a good, old, horrific revenge plot line. Team Sexual Insecurity behave like immoral jerks, what with the raping and all, so the fates conspire to kill them off in gruesome fashion.
In case you’re not scared enough, the bag reads “Pin-a Colada!”
Or, at least, that’s how it feels the plot ought to go. It comes as something of a shock when the kill roster follows a different sequence altogether. Revenge is a fine engine for exploitation and horror films alike, but it sure doesn’t take the expected form here. The reaction to this perversion of the norm could go either way: to me, it smacks of lazy writing in the service of thinning out the herd of characters more quickly. I can envision the argument opposite me, though, in which the filmmakers challenge expectations in order to keep the experience entertaining.
I don’t think that particular strawman of mine has a leg to stand on. Gutterballs is already plenty derivative; deviating from the standard beats of the revenge and retribution plot doesn’t distract from that fact. The ultimate revelations completely annihilate all remainders of the vengeance motivation, making the intentions of the filmmakers pretty damn clear. Blood and gore, dicks and tits: these are the things which form Gutterballs.
Oh, yeah. Also bowling.
The later pairing aren’t much to look at, but I want to commend the creativity of the kills and the quality of the gore effects work. The look of the whole film is low-grade (by necessity and by intention,) but the kills are top-notch. While the editing is a little loose — confused between broad voyeurism and tight action shots — it’s hard to fault the director for lingering over some of the more expressive set pieces. I remember in grade school being warned to stay away from the pin-setters in my local bowling alley; even in my wildest imaginings, I didn’t come up with any scenarios that match what Nicholson and company have done to their characters. Of course, “skullfucking” didn’t really enter my vocabulary until at least the seventh grade, so…
Even for a film that bills itself so brazenly as exploitation, I think Gutterballs has a bit of an identity crisis. A full commitment to either the revenge plot or the immoral pursuit of gore early on would have alleviated the issue. As it stands, you get part of Last House on the Left, a tease of a plot, and then some literal balls-out torture and murder. And some spontaneous sexual reassignment surgery. And death by genital smothering.
Oh, lordy, that reminds me: I have neglected to talk at length about the sex! Oops. Well, as long as I’m talking about things on which I have no authority, let me just say that sex is a beautiful gift from God, and seeing it rendered so crassly made my virgin heart heavy with shame.
“Oh, fuck. I’m still in Winnipeg.”
Writer/Director Ryan Nicholson provides an engaging commentary track, never struggling for something to say. He acknowledges his many influences, and seems acutely aware of the moral indecencies he has put on the screen, coming across as something of a conscientious exploiter. He doesn’t offer any reasoning for his script’s choices, though; he just recognizes that, yep, that was a choice there. Of course, this isn’t an academic’s film, so the majority of the anecdotes vary wildly between humble nods toward the technical crew’s work and declarations of perhaps inflated pride. Also, Mr. Nicholson, “undertones” might have a different meaning than you think. For example: “Homosexual undertones” are usually more subtle than men putting their arms around each other, or, say, sodomy by way of sharpened bowling pin.
Great sound effects on that last bit, though.
The other bonuses include a teaser trailer, a behind-the-scenes documentary which shows how much fun a small production with enthusiastic workers can be, and a gallery of stills.