Like many people who watch a great deal of movies, I’m always happy to come across a film that’s completely unique and unlike anything I’ve seen before. Well I have found such a movie in new horror-comedy The Greasy Strangler, a completely bizarre and distinctive film. But complementary as that might sound, I’ve been struggling with this movie a bit too. It’s been several days now since I saw it and I just do not know if I like it or not. I imagine that can sound like a useless thing to say in a review but I can only be honest here.
The Greasy Strangler is one of those films that I just cannot even begin to fathom how anyone came up with, let alone managed to finance and shoot (it’s producers include director Ben Wheatley and Elijah Wood). It takes place in a world that doesn’t look noticeably different from ours, its shot on indistinct Los Angeles locations and features a number of pop culture references, but the way everyone acts is uncomfortably alien. It feels as if debutant director Jim Hosking (who’s similarly themed short G is for Grandpa appeared in The ABCs of Death 2) has managed to execute his batshit vision uncompromised. Goodness knows where this vision came from, and maybe we should worry about that, the comparison most frequently used has been to John Waters’ early work (you may already know where you’re likely to stand on this film based on that). Though The Greasy Strangler may well be destined for cult status, it doesn’t feel like it’s just trying to be weird for the sake of it.
The film focuses on a father-son pair named Big Ronnie and Big Brayden (a naming trait used for several characters that’s never explained or remarked upon, one of many small touches that serve to make the film even more alienating). Big Ronnie, portrayed with an admirably selfless commitment by actor Michael St. Michaels, is a repulsive bastard, a vile old man who verbally abuses his son at every possible opportunity. Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), his overweight, middle-aged son on the other hand possesses a child-like naivety about many aspects of his life. Ronnie is allowing Brayden to live with him on the condition that he prepares very greasy food for him every day, which we are often shown in nauseating close-ups.
They spend their days running “disco tours”, a tourist con in which Ronnie, clad all in pink points out some random run-down building then recounts some dubious fact about what a famous disco musician supposedly did there. This is one of several running gags that Hosking employs, the funniest of which is Big Ronnie’s continual and aggressive insistence that he is not ‘The Greasy Strangler’ – a serial killer terrorizing the neighbourhood with whom everybody appears familiar. It’s a joke that works on several levels, and that only become funnier with repetition. Firstly because Ronnie so blatantly is the Greasy Strangler, but also because no-one else seems to care and his defensive tirades are never in response to anyone actually asking or even implying that he is.
The film’s approach to black comedy blends other styles too, there’s a touch of absurdism in places, as Hosking stretches out the same joke for a very long time as if to see how long people will find it funny for (similar to something David Wain has done before in fact). There are also a few instances of comically unrealistic gore effects being put to amusing use in the killing scenes, and mixed in with all that are a handful of juvenile fart and sex jokes that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a silly teen comedy. It’s handling of sex and nudity further contributes to its unusual atmosphere as well, as it features both in copious amounts, but always involving older or overweight people. They’re shot in a non-judgemental manner but always accompanied by prosthetic phalluses of either absurdly large or microscopically small proportions.
My personal concern before seeing this film was that it was going to lean heavily in the direction of ‘gross-out’ humour. This type of comedy just doesn’t work for me at all, and make no mistake, there are moments in this film that are truly vile, one in particular makes me cringe just thinking about it now. Thankfully, these are not all that frequent though and it never feels like the film’s main purpose is just to be as disgusting as possible.
As effective as The Greasy Strangler is at involving us in its bizarre world – something enhanced greatly by it’s catchy, buzzy, upbeat electronic soundtrack – it begins to stumble when it comes to the actual story-line. This primarily revolves around a woman named Janet. She’s introduced as a client on their disco tour and for no discernible reason takes a shining to Brayden. As their relationship grows, Ronnie becomes increasingly angered by it and attempts to seduce her away from Brayden. The more this soap-opera-esque angle is focused on, the more the film starts to drag. Janet, while gamely played by Elizabeth De Razzo, is just an impossible character to pin down. Her actions, particularly when she gets to know Ronnie better just become more and more inexplicable. During its love-triangle-centric second-half, this unique film first starts to show signs that it may be running out of ideas and stretching what ones it has out for too long.
That said, where the film ultimately goes for its conclusion is something else entirely that I defy anyone to predict, leaving us on a confounding but highly memorable note.
I’m still unsure on this film, and this is one of those reviews when I’m going to find it tough to assign a star rating, but I can recommend The Greasy Strangler purely on the fact that it’s so unusual and singular. You’re not going to see another film like this anytime soon, and that’s to be respected. I can easily see this film gaining a cult following in the ensuing years, but I don’t thing that I will be among its members.