I enjoy weird films. If it’s cult, obscure, transgressive, shocking, or just plain bizarre, I’ll seek it out and consume it like it’s garmonbozia. But why this sort of fare? I don’t have particularly bizarre habits, behaviors, or even interests (unless you think nerdy obsessions with rhetorical theory and critical discourse as weird, which OK I’ll give you that). I luxuriate in vanilla, straight-laced situations (such as libraries, quiet dinners, spending time with my family, and serious conversations about ethics), am a square dude in looks and manner and consciously avoid most situations that may potentially make me feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I drink whole milk, worry about The Kids of Today, and would love nothing more than to teach literature classes at a cozy college for the rest of my days. So maybe I’m trying to take a walk on the wild side without having to cross the road, so to speak; strange happenings are a lot easier to handle when they stop at the screen instead of actually, you know, experiencing them in-person.
But it’s also because the weirder fare in cinema tends to be Art (with a capital A): although its content can be disturbing and frequently unpleasant, the more extreme side of cinema can also make powerful statements through its audacity. From Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive) to Cronenberg (Videodrome, ExistenZ, Crash) to Gasper Noe (Irreversible, Enter the Void, Love), the provocateurs of cinema are often making their point with a sharpened stick whose jabs you endure are part of the point. Making an audience uncomfortable is both an art form and an effective tool of manipulation; it includes another, often-neglected but exciting element to the experience of watching a film by challenging your sense of propriety.
Horror movies, of course, are the more popular form this type of challenge can be found: by using realistic practical effects, or creating a sense of imminent doom to their visual narratives, the audience can find their thrill in watching a person being hacked to death or being caught up in the drama of a character in danger. But for those kicks, I’ll head to the art house, where the most radical provocations can be found.
In this preamble to the review, I’ve name-checked some of the more celebrated directors in experimental film, but there’s one in particular whose work defined refuge in audacity in cinema: John Waters. For the sake of not turning this review into a career overview of Waters’ cinematic output and influence, I’ll simply say that he elevated the idea of “trash” and exploitation in film into Art, and to check out his films if you haven’t already. Best known as an approach to genre film-making that makes the more salacious aspects of exploitation films (including–but not limited to–outre performances of sexuality, gross behaviors and special effects, and making the everyday grotesque) and makes them the explicit point of the whole endeavor. Many of these films feature abhorrent behavior, extreme antiheroes, and a depiction of reality that both reflects and distorts our own, usually for the cause of extreme satire of our own values and perceptions of normalcy. It’s heady stuff while also serving more lurid interests in over-the-top and shocking manners.
“Enough of this college bullshit! Get to the review!”
This is all to get to the actual movie under discussion today: The Greasy Strangler. Released in 2016, it garnered early buzz in film festivals before being released both in theaters and on demand services. Having caught wind of this new film that was being compared to John Waters’ sensibilities and as the true 21st successor to the Trash genre, I happily plunked down my eight bucks to rent it when it became available.
And it’s…pretty much what I was expecting. To my delight? It’s difficult to affix such positive adjectives like “enjoyed” or “liked” to The Greasy Strangler because the film itself isn’t enjoyable so much as it’s a slow-burning look at a decrepit, tacky, moral-less world. It really cooked my beans intellectually, as I chomped down in my mind on ideas like “Depiction of The Other,” “inverted Oedipus dynamic,” “Representations of the Lower Class and Identity Performance,” and other critical lenses to analyze what I was watching through. But honestly, it was also pretty funny.
To dispense with the basic plot, from the description Comcast provides: “A peculiar father-and-sun duo run a “walking disco” tour, and soon find themselves lusting after the same woman. Meanwhile, an oil-covered serial killer emerges to wreak havoc.” This is like saying The Deer Hunter is about a group of guys who like hunting together; Although those are the broad strokes of the movie, much of the “fun” in watching it is in how much crazier the people in the film and the situations they find themselves in can possibly get.
It’s a pretty basic setup: a dad and his son host a bullshit-filled walking tour of disco landmarks that the dad makes up. The goblin-like father (known as Big Ron) dominates over his son (Big Brayden), who looks like Eric Weirheim had some sort of mental breakdown, and at night Big Ron roams the streets of the Eraserhead-like town they live in as The Greasy Strangler, who murders people that annoy him with disgusting acts of strangulation while naked and covered in oil. Then a woman, Janet (played by Elizabeth De Razzo with such bravery that they should give her a damn Oscar just for going through with it), starts dating the son, much to the father’s insane jealousy. This spurs a twisted love triangle between the three, which leads up to the film’s bizarre denouement.
Pictured: 2/3rds of the people involved in this movie’s love triangle.
A beat-by-beat plot summary here is unnecessary (and I’m not going to do that anyway, because this is a new film and I don’t want to spoil the “fun” for anybody). But there are a lot of things I want to highlight in this review that will hopefully encourage the more timid moviegoer reading this to give the film a chance. If you’ve even seen the short trailer for this movie, you can tell that this film is going for it gross-out wise. And it largely succeeds: from frequent, anti-sexy nudity from all three main characters, to over-the-top practical effects that depict literal eye-popping murder, to the dark, ugly world that these characters inhabit, oversaturated sleaze is the predominant motif. There is nothing in this movie that doesn’t somehow look like it’s actively rotting away before your eyes. Everyone and everything is so wonderfully, artistically, intentionally ugly in the horrible, cheap world of The Greasy Strangler.
However, it doesn’t just stop with the visuals: the music score is comprised of weird, distorted howls and farty organs, always cheerfully chugging along no matter what disgusting visual is being depicted on-screen, like the elevator music of one of the less successful circles of Hell. The performances also bear out the twisted sordidness of this film’s world: Janet plays her character like a cross between Peewee Playhouse‘s “the most beautiful woman in the world” and a potentially mentally challenged woman-child. Meanwhile, Big Ron and Big Brayden act (and interact) more like two immature 13-year-olds telling each other impressive fake stories and trying to one-up each other while standing on the street than elderly father and middle-aged son.
Every character is beyond damaged and warped in this film; nobody seems to have any moral center or sense of shame. I started to think that this film was taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, judging by how few people are ever on the street, how murder is taken very lightly (the police don’t even seem to pick up the dead bodies The Greasy Strangler leaves behind, much less attempt to catch him), and in general the moral nihilism that seemingly informs the characters’ actions. And this may even be the case, that they do inhabit a wasteland; if so, than we can add one more layer of horror to this whole enterprise.
But again, the real surprise was how funny this movie is: fans of the overly long gag may find their Rosetta Stone in this film, and one particularly extended running gag (Ron and Rayden often call bullshit on each other) involves many permutations of the phrase for several minutes straight. Also part of its stilted comedy is its editing: The film is mostly static shots, and the camera lingers on scenes for several beats longer than we’re accustomed to, letting the sheer oddness and tragic comedy of what’s occurring on-screen to really sink in, often reminiscent of how Repo Man kept an ironic eye on its characters’ activities. The film lets you know that it knows that it’s dumb and ugly and trashy. It’s been mentioned often in reviews of this film, but the performances (and much of the movie’s overcooked aesthetic, really) comes across like an unbelievably dark episode of Tim & Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job! I’d also add that this film’s whole aesthetic owes more than a little to the handmade dystopia of John Waters’ Desperate Living, along with the granddaddy of all weirdo grossout cult flicks, Pink Flamingos.
“It’s funny!” “It’s horrifying!” “You’re both right!”
Maybe the most impressive accomplishment of this film is its ability to represent a uniformly sleazy world that exists in a universe just a little to the left of our own. This is also where I’m going to use a word that’s thrown around a lot these days (mostly by me, in these reviews), of “grotesque.” Similar to the uncanny valley effect, viewing the grotesque (a comically or tragically distorted representation of the everyday) makes us confront our own perceptions of what’s normal and what makes it normal to us. While the world of The Greasy Strangler is ugly, garish, cheap, and explicit, it also suggests that what’s normal is simply what everyone agrees it to be. The awful and inexplicable are passively accepted by its inhabitants (one repeating gag is The Greasy Strangler’s victims matter-of-fact narration of what’s happening to them [Example: while a character is strangled, he calmly relates: “I’m dying! I’m actually dying! Things are getting brighter!”). This is even more unnerving to the viewer, to watch (ostensibly) people walking through this nightmare like it’s another Tuesday.
I’d like to explore a little further here of watching the everyday being subverted in this film to great effect: the incongruity of elements that turn commonplace settings into hellish spaces in the overall art direction and general skewed tone of this film’s world. The first date between Janet and Big Brayden takes place in a restaurant. They awkwardly chat each other up, but instead of their interests and favorite movies, much of the conversation is about the sexual abuse Big Brayden experienced as an adult. Also, the restaurant is completely empty except for the two of them, and is totally silent inside. It’s the middle of the day and through a window behind them we can see a nice lake view, but the window is set too high for anybody sitting there to look out. Despite it being the middle of the day, it’s dark inside and their table is illuminated by a lamp that’s on it. This sort of art direction and composition of the scene–of clashing paradoxes (empty restaurant in the middle of the day; windows nobody can see out of; tabletop lighting in a brightly lit room; disturbing small talk between near-strangers)–works to unnerve the viewer, both on an explicit and subliminal way. There’s something deeply wrong here, our brain tells us, but also something very familiar.
There’s a lot more to say on this film (rifling through my notes: “The titles of Big Brayden’s creative works include Space Duck and Pasta Revenge,” “You stay here, you cook greasy!” “the name Ricky Prickles is delightfully John Waters-esque,” etc.), but to detail any more would be to spoil it for you, and it’s already spoiled rotten enough as it is. The Greasy Strangler brings John Waters’ Trash aesthetic into the 21st century. It’s a comedy/horror film that delivers along both lines and so much more. (It may also be the most twisted father/son bonding film I’ve ever seen; Field of Dreams this ain’t.) The performances teeter on the edge of becoming cartoonish, but since the entire film is located squarely in the seediest alleys of Toontown, if not Hell itself, it’s totally appropriate. To call this bad is a compliment, but it’s far too good for that. It’s not just Art, it’s Trash.
- As I mentioned, I didn’t want to cover too much of the movie’s content in this review because it would take the shocking fun out of witnessing it unfold yourself.
- Everyone takes a lot of pride in their idiocy in this film. Either everyone in this film’s world is unbelievably self-assured or wildly self-deluded. Just like in this one!
- I wrote my notes for this review on loose printer paper while using my R. Crumb Coffee Table Book as a writing surface, which seemed appropriate enough for this movie.
- Bullshit artist!
The film’s rating is NC-17/Unrated, for very good reasons. As for my rating: out of four greasy stranglers, this film earns a solid cuatro. Fans of trash and transgressive cinema, celebrate and stay greasy.