The most disturbing thing about "The Backyard" isn't its graphic footage of kids crashing through planks piled with barbed wire, beaning one another with folding chairs and picture frames, or slicing open their own foreheads with razor blades. As twisted and sad as all that is, the most disturbing thing about this grass-roots-inspired extreme-wrestling documentary by Paul Hough is how much worse you expect the violence to be.
Just a few decades ago, commercial wrestling was only about as sexy/dangerous as Killer Kowalski luring Bruno Sammartino into a claw hold. Then came the age of Vince McMahon, whose World Wrestling Federation nurtured the likes of Playboy centerfold Chyna, not to mention black-and-blue story lines wrangling for an X rating. Today, Rob Van Dam is the cocky icon of many amateur wannabes, and backyard wrestling federations have sprouted as training grounds for those too poor or too crazy even to get into wrestling schools.
Fans of hand-to-hand combat sports have by now seen nearly everything, including mega-violent video games, Ultimate Fighting on pay-per-view, and a contestant getting beat to a pulp by his own instructor during MTV's "Tough Enough 3," the show that awards professional wrestling contracts to its used and abused winners.
Put in the context of so much bone-crushing exploitation, "The Backyard" can come across as almost quaint. Oh, it's bloody -- that's bound to happen when combatants are using thumbtacks, mousetraps, and staple guns -- but in many ways it's also as homespun as a taffy pull, with parents and even school officials sometimes cheering on the action.
Warped entertainment? Yes. Sophisticated? No. And that goes for the movie as well as for the participants.
Hough's narration comes without inflection or overt judgment, though it's pretty clear he means to expose the idiocies and absurdities in all corners of the sport. As he travels around the country and across to his native England unmasking characters such as the Lizard, Scar, and the Retarded Butcher, the filmmaker (son of horror film director John Hough, by the way) delineates the subtle differences in backyard wrestling styles. Still, it's the people you'll probably remember, rather than the 20th time you see someone pummeled with light bulbs.
First on that list of memorable faces is 26-year-old Californian Andrew Cook, a.k.a. the Lizard, who's collected several thousand dollars worth of plastic action figures but can't understand why he has no money to attend wrestling school. He's followed by Nevada brothers Justin and Bo Gates, whose dark family secret fuels the creepy theme behind their latest epic wrestling match. "The Backyard" is most fascinating when it's spending (too little) time on these and other back stories, as well as among the parents and bystanders whose behaviors are often even harder to fathom.
One schoolteacher in the film argues that what goes on in the makeshift ring is no worse than a modern version of the Three Stooges. How depressing. And yet . . . look around before you pronounce her dead wrong.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.