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Written and directed by the late Ryan Nicholson, 2008's Gutterballs opens at a bowling alley where a group of young women and a pre-op trans friend await a match with some rival frat boy types lead by Steve (Alastair Gamble). Things quickly get out of hand shortly after another group of guys show up. There's a lot of trash talking and Steve assaults the trans bowler only for one of the other guys, Jamie (Nathan White) steps in to try and stop him. Eventually a bowling ball is dropped on Jamie's foot but not before the frat guys make cat calls and crude remarks to one of the female bowlers, Lisa (Candice Lewald), who is wearing a shirt so shot it barely qualifies as a skirt and who also happens to be ‘going commando.' The bowling alley clerk shows up with a shotgun in hand and the groups scatter. Unbeknownst to her friends, Lisa is left alone inside and is brutally raped in the bowling alley's game room. One of the frat boys, Patrick (Trevor Gemma), the meekest of the bunch, protests and tries to convince Steve not to do this, but he's threatened by the others and forced to rape Lisa with… a bowling pin.
The next day, the groups get back together for their game, the clerk doing little to dissuade them from the insanity seen the night before. Steve's on crutches but determined to beat the others. When they're setting up the teams on the monitors, they're confused to see a player called ‘BBK' show on the screen and they're unable to delete it. Regardless, they move ahead with the game and, as they do, a killer wearing a bowling bag over their face, starts knocking off various players one, sometimes two, at a time in increasingly grisly fashion.
Gutterballs is meant to be a horror comedy but it isn't ever really very funny. There's an insane amount of profanity here, more F-bombs per second than plenty of other films combined, and there are bad stereotypes and crass sex jokes, but the humor isn't effective. It's clear that Nicholson and company were out to make simply make a film as politically incorrect as possible, and on that level the movie is successful. It revels in its crass attitude and rubs your face in the gore and the nudity. It's strong stuff for sure. It's also ridiculously gory, and to Nicholson's credit, the effects work in this department, all done practically without any CGI, is well done. We won't spoil the set pieces here but there are some really impressive moments of extreme splatter on display in the picture, and for some fans of exploitation and gore cinema, that'll be reason enough to see it even if the movie isn't really that enjoyable.
The biggest problem with the film is that there are no characters to really like here. Even the ‘good guys' are just slaughter fodder, they don't have any real personalities at all. In the extras Nicholson admits to filling his film with horror movie clichés, presumably for humorous effect, which his all well and good but there's nothing here. We feel terrible for Lisa because of what happens to her, the length and brutality of the rape scene hammering this home, but she doesn't have any personality. Steve, the main villain, just screams profanities and hurls abuse at everyone, which isn't interesting in and of itself, it's just annoying. It does succeed in making his death more satisfying, we really do hate the character, but it doesn't give him any depth or make him anything more than just a loud, obnoxious cliché.
Aside from the gore scenes, the movie also does make use of some interesting lighting. The bowling alley setting is exploited well enough, with different murder set pieces taking place in the different locations within the building. The movie also makes use of a pretty fun score. It's just a shame that it's so tonally all over the place and that the characters aren't any good. This should have been a lot more fun than it was, but that didn't happen.
Gutterballs comes Blu-ray from Unearthed Films in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen taking up just over 25GBs of space on the 50GB disc. Shot on 16mm film stock you'd expect the movie to be pretty grainy, and it is, but that's not really a problem. There are, however, compression issues here that, when mixed with the fact that most of the movie takes place in darker environment with a lot of blue lighting, results in some noticeable artifacts and crush. Scenes that take place in the outdoors and in daylight, which are rare, look quite good and the stylish, colored lighting used in the film does add some atmosphere to things but the image lacks in detail and appears quite soft overall. This transfer does, however, look considerably better than the older interlaced DVD release did. How much of this is related to the source material is tough to say, as the lighting in the film is what it is, but don't expect this transfer to blow you away.
The only audio option is an English language 24-bit LPCM 2.0 track. There are no subtitles provided. Dialogue is pretty audible when characters aren't talking over one another but there are a few scenes where that does happen and the mix gets a bit messy. Overall, however, the sound quality is decent enough, doing a nice job with the soundtrack and giving the music a nice bit of bounce.
Extras start off with an archival commentary track from writer/director Ryan Nicholson that is an active and engaging listen. He covers where he came up with some of the ideas, shooting on location in the bowling alley, casting the picture and working with the actors as well as the crew members, what went into some of the effects work and quite a bit more. Nicholson has a sense of humor about all of this and makes it very clear that he wasn't making a film that was meant to play as a serious picture. It's an interesting listen with a lot of good information in it.
The disc also includes the Pin-etration Edition cut of the film, which runs twenty-eight-seconds longer than the standard version. The main difference? It includes hardcore penetration shots during the rape scene. This version is presented in 480i standard definition with 16-bit LPCM 2.0 audio.
Also included on the disc is Behind The Balls: The Making Of Gutterballs, which is a forty-three-minute archival featurette that interviews pretty much all of the cast and crew members as well as Nicholson himself. It's actually a pretty solid look at the making of the film, with pretty much all involved clearly having a lot of fun making it. Not surprisingly, there's a good bit of time spent on the effects work featured in the picture but also info on what is involved in shooting in a bowling alley and quite a bit more. It covers some of the same ground as Nicholson's commentary but the involvement of many cast and crew members ensures that it is more than just a rehash of that track.
Aside from that, we also get a still gallery, a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Unearthed Films properties, menus and chapter selection.
Gutterballs is way too tonally uneven to ever reach the potential that it shows, weaving from goofy frat boy comedy to sadistic violence and rape without much care for consistency. As a cult item, it has its curiosity value and the effects work is, admittedly, very well done and quite effective, but it just isn't very fun. Unearthed Films' Blu-ray release looks better than the DVD but is still quite soft, but the audio is decent and the extras are quite good. Fans of the film will appreciate the upgrade, otherwise rent this one before you plunk down the money on a purchase.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.