Cinema history is marked by the efforts of a few genuine provocateurs and many would-be shock purveyors. But based on his latest feature, director Jim Hosking (“The ABCs of Death 2”) may have precisely the knack to create the uncomfortable, even vile visions required to step out into the front rank of true freaks.
“The Greasy Strangler,” which debuted in the Midnight section at Sundance 2016, would feel outré in in any collection of audacious, boundary-busting films. It has roots in the patience-testing comedy of Tim and Eric, and 1990s alt-comics such as early issues of “Eightball” by Daniel Clowes and Dave Cooper’s sweat-drenched “Weasel.” Constructed around three performances that display an utter lack of physical caution, this is a flatulent, filthy, and trying relationship comedy with every corner pushed beyond extremes. If “Barton Fink” was made by John Waters, this is the sort of movie he’d write.
Picture this: An old man bellows as car-wash scrubbers cleanse him of head-to-toe grease. Then, nude and wearing an exaggeratedly large prosthetic penis, he enjoys an all-body blow-dry before wandering, still nude, out to talk to his pal who runs the car wash. Now picture that six times. “The Greasy Strangler” is repetitive. Repetition is part of its strategy, even its mission, as Hosking guides his characters through the banal rhythms of a storyline, such as it is, that will test any audience.
The old man is Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels), who lives with his adult son Big Brayden, played by Sky Elobar. Wearing matching hot-pink shorts and turtleneck combos, the father/son duo makes a living leading gullible folk on fraudulent walking tours of disco-music landmarks. At home, Ronnie emotionally dominates his son and makes constant demands for meals swimming in grease.
Frankly, I’m a bit queasy just thinking about it. Their house is awful. Their life is awful. Their communication, which often seems to consist of the two yelling “bullshit artist!” at one another for minutes on end, is awful. And yet the particulars of “The Greasy Strangler,” some of which are like twisted fever dreams that linger in memory for days, are so effectively bizarre that I haven’t stopped thinking about the film since its debut.
This twisted family inhabits a cracked-mirror version of Los Angeles haunted by a killer called — you knew this was coming — the Greasy Strangler. Big Ronnie is clearly the Strangler. He kills casually, sometimes to comically gory effect, with a truly nasty fixation on eyes. His son doesn’t seem to realize the connection. Brayden is too preoccupied with Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), once a tour client and now the stunted man’s very first girlfriend. Janet’s presence arouses the competitive aspect of Ronnie’s overdriven sexuality. Their home is soon an emotional and sexual battleground over Janet’s attentions.
The film’s heaving, lumpy sex rejects any concept of glorification or idealization. If one end of the cinematic sexual spectrum is represented by the “Top Gun” love scene directed by Tony Scott, this movie’s sexual encounters, which provide only scant pleasure for some participants and seem far more like work than bliss, are miles away on the other end.
If that’s not enough, the vividly puerile ends to which Big Ronnie will go to get laid are probably enough to have this film banned in some territories. (His chest-puffing story about a night out with Michael Jackson is the sort of confrontational anecdote that YouTube reaction videos were meant to celebrate.) As potent as the film’s many weird shocks can be from moment to moment, however, the sordid tale that plays out as Big Ronnie and Big Brayden fight for Janet’s affections has the film’s most significant set of narrative twists.
The most striking exploitation films are marked by a genuine sense of personal expression, in which what seems to be an utterly alien perspective is revealed to actually be how the filmmakers view the world. Despite the fact that we now see more movies than ever, these true expressions are still rare. Mundane noise like “Sharknado,” a post-ironic dribble so desperate to be liked that it would never dare indulge an honest thought, passes for exploitation.
“The Greasy Strangler” is utterly honest, to the point of purity. For all its idiosyncrasies and blank lack of comprehension with respect to any taboo, this film believes in its corrosively yearning inhabitants, their unrefined desires and untrained bodies. It never blinks when one paired-off set of characters stomps around in the nude, incessantly chanting a childish rhyme in order to mock and irritate. That’s one of many setups this film plays out far past any logical limit — whether the joke comes back around to being funny will be a litmus test for your own comic boundaries.
The temptation is to see this movie as a dare, the sort of experience that establishes a safe word, then waits to hear it yelled in a hoarse, desperate voice. That’s as legitimate an approach as any other, and the running time, at 93 minutes, can make the film feel positively Kafka-esque. But even with its most off-putting moments, when “The Greasy Strangler” is as disgusting, deviant, and defiant as its title character, there’s a real pleasure in having a new event movie for the truly weird at heart. [B]