The Alamo Drafthouse is a brand built on weird. Beyond being situated in a town that has long aspired to remain eccentric in the face of all normality, it’s easy to forget that the original Alamo started as something of a private screening club, running prints of the odd and obscure into all hours of the night*. Though the company has obviously grown into an internationally recognized chain of first run movie palaces, the Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas remains committed to showcasing genre repertory programming, namely via its Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday showcases. This column is a concentrated effort to keep that spirit of strangeness alive, as programmers Joe A. Ziemba and Laird Jimenez (often pulling from the extensive AGFA archives) are truly doing Satan’s bidding by bringing ATX weekly doses of delightful trash art.
The third entry into this disreputable canon is the hillbillies v. female baseball squad slice of survival horror, Blood Games (1990)…
Alternate Titles: Baseball Bimbos in Hillbilly Hell and/or Bush League
The rape/revenge movie is an exploitation mainstay, reveling in the nastiest crime any human being can perpetrate against another before (usually) unleashing a tidal wave of rancorous catharsis against the victim’s attackers. Filmmakers like Meir Zarchi (whose I Spit on Your Grave is arguably the zenith of said subgenre) have often made dubious claims about their pictures’ feminist intentions. However, there seems to be a sick titillation at play in most of these movies, forcing the viewer to become complicit in both the heinous violation as well as the act of vengeance. There is no real moral high ground to be had here. You are simply a bystander to brutality.
Blood Games is a bit of an oddity in this regard; not only because its roughly fifteen-years-plus removed from the height of rape/revenge’s saturation in the exploitation marketplace (think: Last House on the Left and its decade of imitators). Tanya Rosenberg’s film also lacks the rough edges of its peers – a coat of '90s DTV action painted over a '70s four-walled male gaze massacre. Yet beyond polish and an out of time manifestation, it spins the rape/revenge formula on its head, as the aggressors also become the avengers. This transforms Blood Games into an alternately goofy and gut wrenching delve into out and out survival horror. The descriptor “icky” doesn’t even begin to do the film justice.
Blood Games opens in media res. A baseball game has inexplicably been organized between traveling squad, Babe and the Ballgirls, and a gaggle of local rednecks, most of who have decided to don caps with outrageous catchphrases like “The Check Is In The Mail”. Should a viewer attempt to scrutinize the film from a sheer storytelling standpoint, they may as well quit at frame one. Do these girls simply roam from town to town, supporting themselves via bets made on the matches in which they engage? Was this game organized only to celebrate the birthday of Roy (Gregory Scott Cummins), a bastard so savage he elbows one of the women in super slow motion? Is Midnight (Ross Hagen) not only the coach of the Ballgirls (who really should be a riot grrrl band instead of a baseball team) but also the father of the sluggers’ busty front woman (Laura Albert)? Does any of this really matter?
The answer to that final consideration is: “no, not really.” The ballgame is a very obvious, cartoony setup (complete with George “Buck” Flower spitting tobacco every which way) for the mayhem to come. After Roy’s Vietnam Vet father, Mino (Ken Carpenter, a/k/a the Camerahead Cenobite from Hellraiser III), stiffs Midnight on a bet, the coach decides to leave the girls on their tour bus (that’s right, the Ballgirls have a tour bus, complete with their name on the side) and confront the clearly very crazy asshole at the local watering hole. Of course, Roy is arm-wrestling another meathead (Full Moon Entertainment mainstay Don Dowe) and, once they’re done flexing and guzzling shitty beer, the two decide to go off looking for any crevice in which to stick their probably diseased dicks. They find two of the women who – in typical horror film “bad decision” mode – have wandered off the lorry in search of their coach, and attempt to rape the girls in a fairly conspicuous alley. Midnight intervenes and promptly gets the fuck stabbed out of him.
Here’s the rub: during the ensuing chase, Roy is run down in the street, enraging his father to the point that he offers a bounty for each of the girls’ dead bodies. Suddenly, the rednecks become the agents of vengeance, furiously hunting down the hapless ladies, who only have their balls and bats with which to defend themselves (phallic symbolism? possibly…). Rosenberg (who – according to Laird’s pre-show description of a chat he enjoyed with one of the film’s writers – does in fact exist despite having no other credits to her name) directs it all with surprising competency. The backwoods vehicular pursuit never rises to Mad Max levels or anything, but the action is choreographed and shot with a shocking level of slickness. There’s a polish to Blood Games that’s disarming – the cars kicking up dust as everything is coated in the silken patina of 90s film stock.
Unfortunately, things go from gonzo to grim in record time. The back half of Blood Games is incredibly mean-spirited and, in the case of a rather graphic gang rape, quite ugly. What’s odd is Rosenberg (along with her fleet five writers), actually seem like they’re rewarding the hooligans with this violation. The scene arrives so late that it only heightens how gratuitous and cruel it is. There’s no more impetus for comeuppance needed, as both the women and the audience have been assaulted for the last hour by how awful these misogynistic pigs are. Then again, that’s what keeps Blood Games squarely in the realm of bona fide exploitation trash – its unrepentant disregard for offending anyone in the name of indulging wanton viciousness.
Though we’ve been assured that Rosenberg is an Israeli director (much like producer Yakov Bentsvi) who most certainly lives and breathes amongst us (and was dating DP Sam Gart in 1990), it’s still hard to believe she ever interacted with any other female humans. As Annie Choi over at Bleeding Skull points out, there’s an entire locker-room discussion that misunderstands the basic mechanics of a G-string. Also – nobody seems to own a bra (the lack of which is often showcased in slow-mo) and even the Babe and the Ballgirls’ team uniform comes equipped with short shorts that would be a better fit for a post-game shift at Hooters. These are not real people, by any stretch of the imagination. They’re tanned, glistening goddesses, endlessly ogled with a leering, intrusive lens – a primal sexual element that makes the violence in the back half that much more unsettling. Perhaps what we’re seeing is an immigrant’s interpretation of American iconography, both high (baseball) and low (rednecks). Sports, violence, racism and rape culture – all part of the fabric of the United States.
Blood Games is an effective lost gem of trash cinema; lurid, sweaty and pretty gross all-around, but unashamedly so. Early on in the film, George “Buck” Flower’s Confederate caveman screams “Don’t let their knockers hypnotize ya!” This primitive game time coax could double as the movie’s numbskull mantra. Underneath all of the silicone, short shorts and 80s refugee hair is a truly nasty piece of work, intent on pulling the rug out from under you once its ludicrous majesty has got you settled comfortably into your seat. The final minutes of Blood Games then remind you who lived, who died, and who will be forever scarred by this wrong turn into hillbilly hell. We’re witness to the last stop on Babe and the Ballgirls’ Southern Tour, and are certain there will never be another.
*For an oral history of the Drafthouse’s beginnings, I’ll refer you to Zack McGhee’s wonderful “My Favorite Movie” Podcast, where he interviews old school DH programmers Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson, as well as current Wednesday night ringmaster, Laird Jimenez. They’re GREAT listens, full of knowledge, wit and insight.
Tonight on Weird Wednesday: The Last Match