At The Picture Show
The Greasy Strangler
All greased up with nowhere to go
On cosmic inevitability, ideas drawn out beyond their efficacy, and the difference between randomness and absurdity
The Greasy Strangler
Director: Jim Hosking
Screenplay: Toby Harvard and Jim Hosking
Starring: Sky Elobar, Michael St. Michaels, Elizabeth De Razzo, Gil Gex, Joe David Walters and Sal Koussa
Not rated / 1 hour, 33 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
If the creators of The Greasy Strangler are looking for a round of applause, I suppose we might as well just give it to them. After all, the very existence of the film is accomplishment enough. At least now everyone who has seen it can rightfully say, "Well, I've never seen anything quite like The Greasy Strangler before." Ho-hum.
In terms of evaluation, that's both the starting point and the end point. There isn't another movie quite like The Greasy Strangler ... but then again, why would there be? Why would anyone have made a movie like this before, and why would anyone do so again? It's now been achieved. We've now had a meticulously formal gross-out movie about a naked, grease-covered serial killer (and former disco enthusiast) and his overly dependent adult son. Congratulations are surely in order. But beyond that, it has the good (and/or bad) fortune of being fundamentally resistant to judgment. Its value, so to speak, is in its existence, not its quality. I'm not sure it's possible to really appraise it on artistic merit; it would be like trying to give a star rating to a Jackass movie, or a particularly noxious episode of The Jerry Springer Show. I'll take something of an existentialist approach here, and simply settle on the idea that, by multiverse logic, there was bound to be a version of the universe in which a movie that fits the above description was made. That's the version of the universe we got. We got The Greasy Strangler, we got a version of the Internet with auto-play video ads, we got motion-smoothing, we got Trump. We're an underachieving universe, what can I say.
As such, it is my diplomatic position to say that this is neither a good movie nor a bad one, but simply an inevitability. A laborious, forced and unpleasant one, to be sure; but cosmically speaking, it could not be avoided.
There seems to be no way around this description, so here goes: The Greasy Strangler feels like what would happen if Jared Hess directed a John Waters movie, but only after studying the collected works of Quentin Dupieux and mainlining every episode of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, only half-comprehending any of it. The deliberate stiltedness of the film's performers is, as an ironic mannerism, disconnected from anything it might theoretically be commenting on, any purpose it might be serving. It merely draws attention to its own affectation of personality. Tim and Eric's conceptual tackiness*, driven by its disorienting stream-of-consciousness and gonzo satirical aggression, is as subversive as it is nightmarishly senseless. Dupieux, in the way his surrealist impulses dovetail so elegantly with his absurdist perspective, is equally committed.
* In fairness, even Tim and Eric didn't work especially well at feature length.
It's not hard to see the surface similarities to what director Jim Hosking and co-writer Toby Harvard are trying to do here, except the knife's edge Heidecker, Wareheim and Dupieux's work occupied has been dulled down. Hosking's film has a certain vision, but it lacks a real point of view. I'm trying to be careful here, as I always bristle when I hear people throw certain types of criticism at certain types of movies - "It's trying too hard to be weird," "They're just trying to shock us," that sort of thing. And neither is quite what I'm arguing about Strangler. It's more that I think the film's conceptualization was severely limited from the start, and in the act of actually making it, Hosking and his cast never really came up with much more to do with it, or anywhere else to go.
The film is very cleanly put together, its linearity and directness underscoring the loony vulgarity of its ideas. Similar to the aforementioned Hess, there's a sure-handed tidiness to Hosking's simple compositions. His images have a strict sense of composure, and he directs with a lot of confidence, if not necessarily skill. The rhythms of the film's cutting - including identical, quick shot sequences for repeating events, a la Edgar Wright - impart minute details and information with a breezy matter-of-factness. The steady stream of shots - both wide and close-up - of the old man's large, flappy prosthetic penis is sorta funny, but probably not the subversive confrontational joke the film intended.
In fact, that may speak to the bottom-line issues with The Greasy Strangler. I mean, since we're on the subject of penises anyway, the biggest problem is a lack of stamina. A concept like this one has the amusing randomness of a comedy sketch, but stretched out to 90 minutes, its novelty doesn't last. In an adult-themed sketch series, maybe it would have been terrific. But as a feature film, it comes across not as original or absurd, but as a running joke that's way too desperate to keep itself going. As a feature film, its originality - if that's what you want to call it - wears off. I mean, there's always *some* random idea no one has thought of. There always will be. Certain ideas are much better dealt with quickly, narrowed down to their essence, when there's just enough time for them to be funny and not enough for them to wear out their welcome.
The film and its cast - including Michael St. Michaels as Big Ronnie, the strangler himself, who insists on putting extra grease on everything, and dips himself in a vat of the stuff whenever he's on the prowl; Sky Elobar as Big Brayden, his 40-ish childlike son who is thinking about getting a girlfriend for the first time; and Elizabeth De Razzo, as Janet, the girl he's after and that his father tries to steal - deliberately deliver their lines with an amateurish obviousness, like non-actors reading lines on camera for the first time. (Only De Razzo seems to strike a balance between the detached, off-center style Hosking is going for and a more natural deadpan style.) It's in this characteristic, among others, that the film breaks down, as it closely approaches the event horizon between badness and deliberate, "ironic" badness, when the difference becomes indistinguishable and therefore irrelevant. I said earlier that The Greasy Strangler was neither good nor bad, and that may be fundamentally true. That there is, in this case, such little distinction between the two probably says all that needs to be said.
Read more by Chris Bellamy