Far from the prying eyes of the MPAA, independent filmmaker Ryan Nicholson forged a career producing excessively violent and sexually graphic low budget horror movies for the unrated audience. Drawing inspiration from some of the genre’s most notorious cycles, such as the slasher and rape-revenge films, Nicholson spent the last decade of his life enraging critics, disgusting viewers and earning a reputation as a shameless director of what detractors would commonly refer to as ‘smut.’ Yet while American horror movies often claimed to be pushing the boundaries of what can be shown on screen, there are still many restrictions that can force filmmakers to compromise their work in order to gain commercial acceptance, but the further from Hollywood that movies are produced the more willing directors are to take a risk on subjects that could be deemed too disturbing or offensive for the average cinemagoer.
Like David Cronenberg before him, Ryan Nicholson emerged from the Canadian film industry with a series of shocking pictures that have courted controversy but still found a home among the fans of sleazy and depraved horror movies. But while Cronenberg used the genre to explore more complex issues of the body and sexuality, Nicholson took his love of sexploitation and created a body of work that included such ‘money shots’ as the bloody decapitation of a defenceless woman and a bowling pin forcibly inserted into a vagina. He never tried to justify the content of his pictures as art and even revelled in his love of bad taste cinema, paying homage to the likes of Ms. 45 and Savage Streets with his focus on the victim – either sexual or otherwise – taking brutal revenge against their abuser. Nicholson was unlikely to win favour with mainstream critics, nor receive awards outside of the horror genre, but instead he followed in the footsteps of those filmmakers who inspired him as a child, by challenging the status quo and refusing to conform to the standards of his peers.
The Canadian horror genre first came into its element during the mid-1970s when the government, concerned by the lack of home-grown talent in their film industry, introduced the Capital Cost Allowance, in which a tax shelter was created for private investors to fund feature films on the understanding that the movies be produced locally and with a mostly Canadian cast and crew. This was an attempt to provide the country with a more sustainable film scene, instead of merely relying on imports from the United States and over the next few years the production of features in Canada increased considerably. The first significant film to result from this creative boom was Shivers, a low budget horror from David Cronenberg, which introduced the world to a sub-genre since referred to as ‘body horror,’ which told of the residents of a luxury high-rise apartment block being infected with an aphrodisiac parasite that transformed them into lustful zombie-like ghouls.
Cronenberg would not be the only important filmmaker working in Canada at that time, as Bob Clark had followed his earlier feature Deathdream with the seminal classic Black Christmas, a movie which many cite as a key influence on the American slasher boom of the early 1980s. Indeed, Canada would produce many contributions to this popular-yet-critically reviled sub-genre, with Happy Birthday to Me, Prom Night, Visiting Hours and, most notorious of all, My Bloody Valentine landing distribution from major studios and enjoying modest success at the American drive-ins. The late 1970s had proved to be one of the most productive eras in the history of Canadian cinema but in 1981 the tax shelter was terminated, causing a noticeable decline in low budget productions, with the focus now moving to television. But young horror fans such as Ryan Nicholson would remain forever changed by that one brief moment when the likes of Cronenberg and Clark threatened to dominate the mainstream.
Like many filmmakers Nicholson was bitten by the bug at an early age, accompanying his father, Roy, to the local cinema to watch a new breed of horror pictures that had begun to populate the 1980s. Many were remakes of films that Roy Nicholson had grown up on and now, decades later, he was able to take his son to enjoy the more explicit and FX-heavy reinterpretations of those B-movie classics, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly. Many of the children who were repulsed and scared by those pictures soon became fascinated with the behind-the-scenes mechanics of filmmaking, shooting their own amateur short films or creating homemade special effects from latex. Dick Smith, the master behind the make-up for The Exorcist, had already revealed tricks of the trade in his legendary book Dick Smith’s Monster Makeup, but in the 1980s the artist who was gaining the most attention from magazines like Fangoria was Tom Savini.
Having served as a combat photographer in Vietnam, Savini had witnessed the horror of war and the mutilation of the human body through the lens of a camera and as he embarked on his career as an actor and make-up artist, his experiences would have a considerable impact on his work. Initially gaining acclaim for his collaborations with George A. Romero on Martin and Dawn of the Dead, it would be his success with Friday the 13th and several notorious slasher pictures of the early 1980s, such as Maniac and The Burning, that would transform him into a horror star in his own right. ‘I often show acquaintances examples of what I consider to be fantastic magic tricks, illusions, sculptures and mechanisms that are part of the splatter effect,’ explained Savini in his book Grande Illusions, ‘and they just look at me in a strange way and say, ‘God, you’re sick.’ I’m probably one of the few artists who shows his artistic accomplishments to people and is met with a ‘You’re sick’ reaction.’
Ryan Nicholson’s work has had a similar effect on horror fans, both repulsing and delighting in equal measures with his brand of sadistic and tongue-in-cheek exploitation. Prior to directing splatter flicks, Nicholson was a make-up artist for hire, having formed a partnership with Roy. ‘When my father retired from being a chiropractor he wanted to do something else, so he jumped on-board with me and we formed Flesh and Fantasy Inc.,’ explained Nicholson to Love-It-Loud on the birth of his Vancouver-based special effects company that he formed in the 1990s. Nicholson, a child of the ’80s, was raised on a steady diet of horror and fantasy but it would be through the discovery of Lucio Fulci and Abel Ferrara that his taste for movies of a more extreme nature began.
Both Fulci and Ferrara would find their work on the Director of Public Prosecutions’ list of ‘video nasties’ in the United Kingdom during the mid-1980s, with Ferrara’s The Driller Killer causing a public outcry to the Advertising Standards Agency after the movie’s poster, in which a screaming head is impaled by a large drill, was published in numerous magazines in an attempt to provoke a reaction from its video distributor. But VIPCO, the company responsible for the graphic advert, were not prepared for what would follow, with moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse leading a protest against the new breed of lurid and dangerous movies that had begun to find their way onto the shelves of video stores around the country. But once the media began to publish news stories on the drama, warning parents of the dangers that these videos could cause, filmmakers such as The Evil Dead‘s Sam Raimi found themselves having to justify their work.
‘Back in the ‘80s it was unrated all the way. Or X-rated,’ recalled Nicholson on the overabundance of violent movies during that were released during his childhood. ‘These directors didn’t care about the almighty dollar as much as they cared about their vision being fucked with.’ Explicit sex and gore, two staples of horror during the video nasty era, became trademarks of a Ryan Nicholson film, from his feature-length debut Live Feed to later offerings like Hanger. Nicholson took the lessons that he had learned from the pages of Fangoria and the movies of Fulci and Wes Craven and fashioned a series of low budget exploitation pictures that refused to shy away from subject matters than more mainstream filmmakers would feel uncomfortable exploring. ‘I basically feel that these directors made balls-out horror their way, away from the studio system,’ he added.
Before producing their own extreme horror features, Ryan and Roy Nicholson launched the special effects company Flesh and Fantasy Inc. and were subsequently hired for a variety of successful pictures that were produced in British Columbia, from the cult teen horror Final Destination to the slasher spoof Scary Movie. Ryan Nicholson also had the chance to work on one of Cronenberg’s films, acting as a special effects and creature technician on the underrated 1999 thriller eXistenZ. But despite working on such high profile projects, Nicholson found the experience of participating on other people’s movies ultimately unsatisfying and longed to become a director in his own right. After several attempts at short films, with such titles as Crazy White Boys, Nicholson shot a forty-four minute rape-revenge flick called Torched, in which he would begin to explore many of the themes that would ultimately define his work, most notably sexual violence and elaborate murder set-pieces.
Produced on a budget of $4,000 CAD in collaboration with Creepy Six Films, Torched would find its way onto home video as part of the anthology Hell Hath No Fury and, while its subject matter and low budget would alienate some horror fans, others recognised the potential of its director. In her book Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas stated, ‘Torched is worthy of note because while its rape scene is fast, vague and shows no nudity, its depiction of sexual violence is totally centred on these scenes of male genital mutilation.’ This would not be the case, however, with his breakthrough feature Gutterballs, a pastiche of the vigilante movies of the late 1970s and early ‘80s in which a violated young woman exacts brutal vengeance against those responsible. Taking inspiration from not only low budget exploitation flicks like Ms. 45 and Savage Streets but also the award-winning drama The Accused, Gutterballs would subject its viewers to a prolonged rape scene that would last a total of nine minutes, culminating with the aforementioned bowling pin penetration.
‘The violence and sexual content that I made and still make get frowned on by film snobs. Back in the ‘90s, with something like Crazy White Boys, we actually sent it off to a Victoria film festival and they wrote back, ‘Never send us any of your work again!’ So yeah, the snubbing started early,’ admitted Nicholson, who clearly enjoyed disturbing and offending his fans, prompting Severed Cinema to declare Hanger ‘as entertaining as it is repulsive.’ Many may have dismissed his style of filmmaking and storytelling as juvenile and amateur, while others tried to make comparisons between his films and those produced by Troma, but if Nicholson’s sole aim was, as some claim, to disgust as much as possible in a mere ninety minutes, then he often succeeded. The horror genre is regularly dismissed by critics in favour of auteurs, with the common opinion being that films that rely on special effects and nudity must have little else to offer, but by his own admission that is exactly what Nicholson wanted to sell to his audience. And those who speak out against his work only served to promote it further.
Yet despite his no-holds-barred approach to storytelling, Nicholson still agreed that a filmmaker could go too far. ‘I don’t really think I would kill children in my movies. It doesn’t interest me. I heard a good quote the other day, ‘Old people, animals and children.’ Don’t fuck with them in reality, don’t fuck with them in film,’ stated Nicholson, who even criticised Ruggero Deodato’s decision to include real animal deaths in his notorious 1980 classic Cannibal Holocaust, despite being a fan of the movie. ‘Any filmmaker that harms an animal is the scum of the earth in my opinion. I don’t care if it’s a mouse or a snake. When I was younger I enjoyed Cannibal Holocaust, even though I avoided looking at the animal-killing stuff. Today, I don’t hesitate to say that if I saw a filmmaker or heard of one doing that kind of stuff I would hurt them. And I am not the only one. Deodato regrets what happened and even did a director’s cut without the animal stuff. I commend him for that but it doesn’t excuse the earlier oversight.’
Nicholson is not the first special effects artist to turn to directing, following in the footsteps of Tom Savini, John Carl Buechler, Joe Johnston and even the legendary Stan Winston, who created the 1988 cult horror Pumpkinhead. It is not uncommon for an artist to direct special effects sequences in films, having gained a clear understanding on what angles would make the special effects illusion the most effective, but in some instances, such as when Winston worked for James Cameron on both The Terminator and Aliens, he was given the chance to direct the second unit, thus allowing him to test the water before directing his own movie. Nicholson had cut his teeth shooting his short films, while the inclusion of Torched in an anthology allowed for his work to be viewed without the pressure of box office figures, but it would not be until Live Feed in 2006 that he would make his official feature-length debut.
Savini has often referred to a special effect gag as being like an illusion and as with magic tricks the key is misdirection; have your audience preoccupied with a distraction while you create the illusion in front of them. Prior to the innovation and rise in popularity of computer-generated imagery (CGI), with filmmaking this could be achieved with the help of editing and, ever since the early days of cinema, when special effects were created in-camera and through the use of matte paintings, filmmakers have been able to fascinate viewers with seemingly impossible tricks. Since the 1970s, when Rick Baker and Rob Bottin helped to push the envelope in terms of prosthetics, the illusion of special effects has advanced to the point that often the audience is unable to differentiate between what is real and what is fake. Savini took this to a whole new level with Friday the 13th; slitting a woman’s throat on camera and, even more impressive, piercing a throat from behind with a spear, thus causing the blood to pump out from the wound without cutting away.
Nicholson would lend his talents as a special effects artist to orchestrate some of the elaborate death scenes in his movies. In Live Feed, the tale of a group of American tourists kidnapped by Chinese gangsters while exploring Asia, a sequence included one of the sadistic torturers inserting a long tube into the mouth of a naked-and-bound woman and then feeding a snake down into her throat, causing her to choke to death while a businessman and his female companions watch with a sadistic glee. ‘We did it in different cuts. The actress with a tube becoming shorter in edits and a false torso showing the actual shoving of the tube,’ said Nicholson, explaining how the horrific image was achieved. ‘We used a real snake, of course and blood tubing and air pressure to spray the blood. That’s a classic effect recreated by myself and many others. Tom Savini did the same thing in The Prowler or The Burning, using different lengths of a knife blade to sell insertion. I did the exact same thing with the bowling pin down the transvestite’s throat in Gutterballs.’
The latter death would also demonstrate Nicholson’s obsession with pushing boundaries, as following the pin being forced down into the throat the audience are then subjected to a close-up of the victim’s penis being sliced in two. Another scene in the same movie would boast arguably the director’s most unique form of murder, in which two young lovers performing simultaneous oral sex suffocate as the assailant presses his feet down on their heads, resulting in a ‘death by 69.’ In what Nicholson must have considered an act of poetic justice, a less imaginative but no-less-brutal sequence featured the lead rapist being sodomised with a bowling pin that has been sharpened to a point like a large spear. Initially, Nicholson’s key collaborator on the make-up in his films was Michelle Grady, who had joined Nicholson’s later company Plotdiggers for Gutterballs and remained for subsequent productions, but a more recent addition to the crew was Nicholson’s wife, Megan Collins.
In recent years Hollywood has become a machine that is content with recycling the past if it guarantees a profit. While the saying has always been ‘it’s show business, not show art,’ in the 1970s when many studios were undergoing something of an artistic and commercial crisis, they were willing to take a risk on projects that seemed unconventional and even controversial, but from these risks such classics as A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist were born. But in the modern climate studios seem too preoccupied with rebooting old classics, adapting television shows for the big screen and dazzling audiences with 3D. Thus, independent filmmakers have turned to crowd-funding, in which they offer their fans the chance to contribute donations to their budget in return for some kind of incentive, often a keepsake, film credit or invitation to an event. The popularity of sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo even prompted Hollywood filmmakers Spike Lee and Zach Braff to finance their pictures in a similar fashion.
Offer fans something juicy
After the frustrating experience of one of his movies Famine making its way onto the internet illegally, Nicholson decided that with his next project Collar, he would engage with his fans directly and allow them the chance to contribute to the financing of a film that otherwise may have never see the light of day. ‘I think if you offer fans something juicy in return I don’t see it as begging for money. I see it as the fan pre-ordering the movie in one capacity; digital download, streaming or on disc,’ claimed Nicholson, addressing the backlash that many filmmakers have encountered over accusations that crowd-funding is merely pleading for fan assistance. ‘That’s no different than what I’ve done for the last ten years, selling products directly from my web-store. Some fans pre-order my movies many months in advance just to make sure they get one. Crowd-funding isn’t much different. To me, it’s fans getting in earlier than others.’
Nicholson was forced to make sacrifices in order to gain the level of artistic freedom he had enjoyed in recent years. In order for a movie to be shown commercially in cinemas across America they are required to be submitted to the MPAA, who can then insist on any amount of cuts before they deem the product suitable for public consumption. Distributors can get around this, however, by choosing to bypass the rating system and release their movie unrated, although this can limit where their product can be exhibited. Alternatively, they can unleash the film straight to home video and try to recoup their costs through the sales of DVD and Blu-ray, as well as legal streaming and downloading. ‘After the bullshit I went through with the MPAA on Live Feed, numerous cuts and attempts to get an R, finally at a hefty expense I decided to go unrated,’ insisted Nicholson, having made a name for himself with the controversial uncut versions of Gutterballs and Hanger.
But having created a body of work that was both shocking and tasteless, it is perhaps not surprising that Nicholson was often the target of negative and occasionally scathing reviews. Having written a rather savage summary of Live Feed for DVDActive one writer later commented, ‘I still don’t think the film was good, but my violent dismay was most likely brought on by the fact that I really wanted to like the film.’ At first this came as a shock to Nicholson, who felt that he had to defend his work and took many of the harsher criticisms personally, but in the years since its release he would approach the negative feedback with a more open mind. ‘Something happened between Live Feed and Gutterballs. When Gutterballs came out I didn’t read any reviews, I was curious but I purposely stayed away from reading anything,’ he explained. ‘When Hanger came out I didn’t even think about reviews. I wasn’t really curious. When Bleading Lady came out, I didn’t think about reviews at all.’
2019 marks the fifteenth anniversary since the release of Torched, the first real ‘Ryan Nicholson’ film and in the years since he produced a body of work that was both equally celebrated and reviled, but never ignored. Through his company Plotdiggers he maintained complete control over his work while interacting closely with his fans, keeping a finger on the pulse of what his public would demand from him. ‘I see us as a big family. We support one another,’ boasted Nicholson proudly. ‘My fans are there for me when I need them and I try to be there for them. For the most part I try to respond to people’s emails and messages, although it does take some time with everything on the go. I have a very loyal fan-base. People that have been with me since Torched; lifers, so to speak. If it wasn’t for these guys and gals, I wouldn’t be making movies. I really try and deliver to these people because they seem to view what I make as something special.’
The loyalty and devotion of Nicholson’s fan-base would truly be demonstrated when, on 23 February 2016, the filmmaker was admitted to hospital with what was later revealed to be cancer. Sixty-five of his ‘horror family’ would contribute to a crowdfunding pledge created by a close friend to help with medical costs and over the next three and a half years he would receive support from the online community during his struggle with the disease. But on 8 October 2019 Megan would reveal the tragic news via a post published on Nicholson’s Facebook page that he had passed away. ‘I am greatly saddened to let all his friends and fans know this heartbreaking news. Ryan’s fight with cancer has come to an end,’ she would announce. ‘He fought with dignity and looked it right in the face. He made a lot of others with cancer feel strong and gave them the fight they needed. He made everyone who talked to him laugh and feel like today is the best day. He did that every day.’
No sooner had the news made its way online there was an outpouring of emotion from both fans and websites, with many paying tribute to a filmmaker who may have pushed the boundaries of taste on screen but had always treated both his followers and contemporaries with compassion and respect. With his work easily accessible online, either through web-stores or streaming services, one can only hope that his legacy will live on and thrive through word-of-mouth, with the excessive delights of Gutterballs and Hanger reaching new audiences who never had the chance to enjoy them the first time round. ‘I think that the spirit of exploitation is disappearing, only because no one has the balls to make these kinds of movies,’ Nicholson told Love-It-Loud in 2009 on the struggles that he had faced as an independent filmmaker. ‘They don’t make money and most people who make movies want to make money. That’s why it’s hard to do what we do. People aren’t beating down the door to fund our movies and financially they are barely paying for themselves with DVDs getting less and less marketable. We need to find new ways to distribute our product and get back what was put into them, otherwise no one wins.’