“I was surprised by reactions to the film. I thought people would find it funny or absurd, but people look really shaken when they come out. When we screened it at South by Southwest, there was a filmmaker I know who makes very strange films. And afterward, he looked like he had been through the wringer: ‘I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought, ‘Oh, come on.’ What can seem fun to one person can seem totally deranged to someone else.”–Jim Hosking, Rolling Stone
FEATURING: Michael St. Michaels, Sky Elobar, Elizabeth De Razzo
PLOT: Big Ronnie eats an extremely greasy diet and runs a scam tour of L.A. disco locations with his unmarried adult son and live-in cook Brayden. At night he transforms into a lard-soaked monster who strangles people. When Brayden catches the eye of a girl on the tour, Big Ronnie becomes jealous and determines to seduce her himself.
- The movie was supported and partly financed by the venerable British Film Institute.
- This was 72-year-old actor and former punk-club owner Michael St. Michaels’ first leading role—unless you count his film debut in 1987s direct-to-VHS The Video Dead.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Big Ronnie’s big prosthetic, flapping in the car wash blower’s breeze.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disco spotlight; pig-nosed stranglee; “hootie tootie disco cutie”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Gross, greasy and bizarre, Jim Hosking‘s debut feature is the closest thing you’ll see to a modern John Waters Trash Trilogy film, filtered through the fashionable surreal comedy sensibilities of Tim and Eric or Quentin Dupieux. Strangler is more than the sum of those influences, however: it is its own little world where a lisping man with a pig snout can walk around town without raising an eyebrow, and a spotlight might suddenly appear on an alley wall for a character to do a spontaneous dance number. The fat-to-nutrient content is too out-of-whack for this to count as healthy entertainment, but it’s fine as a guilty pleasure treat. It’s too big, bold and weird to be ignored; it’s not 2016’s best movie, or even the year’s best weird movie, but it is this season’s most insistently in-your-face assault on taste and reality.
Short clip from The Greasy Strangler
COMMENTS: “Let’s get greasy!” shouted the producers from the stage to whip the audience into a frenzy before the 2016 Fantasia Festival’s midnight screening of The Greasy Strangler. “Greasy” in this film is a concept that plays a similar role to the idea of the “filthy” in Pink Flamingos; it’s a motto and an encapsulation of the aesthetic. Like “filthy,” “greasy” is more specific and vivid than the other descriptors you might associate with the movie: words like “gross,” “disgusting,” or “shocking.” It is also literal description of events: there’s enough onscreen oil, gristle and grease to put you off your popcorn for the night. There are three major long-chain fatty acids that go into Jim Hosking’s oleaginous style: grossout humor, anti-comedy, and just a touch of greasy surrealism. Mixing these ingredients together in industrial tubs, he slathers the resulting slime all over his pathetic characters: rude braggart Big Ronnie, lonely loser Brayden, manipulative Janet, and the host of cartoonish oddballs wandering around an otherwise deserted Los Angeles.
The grossout humor is the easiest element to conceive. It’s both the basest constituent and, to a large extent, the basis of the film’s appeal. The gallons of grease are the gauntlet thrown in good taste’s face, the freak flag that signals “the party’s here” to the weirdo crowd. Many low-budget filmmakers manage to nail this element, without being able to take the next step, but Hosking shows more craft and attention to disgusting detail. It all starts with the casting: none of the actors here have movie star looks, but they are unusual specimens, made up in a campy/grotesque style: Sky Elobar with a tragic comb over, Elizabeth De Razzo with a ridiculous curly wig. The three principals are all frequently nude or in their underwear. St. Michaels is in good shape, but he is a seventy-year old man with all the attendant wrinkles. Elobar and De Razzo are flabby, and shot to emphasize their rolls of flesh. Each of them carry their own trademark prosthetic genitals—Big Ronnie swings a big red knife-shaped phallus that hangs to his knees, while Brayden’s member is rather less imposing. Janet wears a fluffy auburn merkin. Besides the non-erotic nudity and the endless shots of sausages and other dishes drowning in oily goo, there’s also farting, awkward sex, urination, and eyeball eating (the strangler’s modus operandi is to choke his victim until the eyeballs pop out, then snack on them). The violence is abundant but so unreal that it never feels mean-spirited; the victims don’t even suffer but sometimes even enjoy the experience. The whole concoction is calculated to bring down the audience’s average age by keeping grandma and grandpa out of the theater, leaving the choice seats for the young and brave.
Anti-comedy, or awkward comedy, is a new flavor added to the brew. The ironic non-joke jokes and extended repetitions are a style that’s become a bit trendy in outre circles in the two-thousand teens. While the appeal of grossout humor and general weirdness will endure through the ages, this particular comic style may end up being the thing that most dates this movie twenty years from now. The “potato” scene is probably the best example of this technique (and maybe the only “safe-for-work” example). The setup itself is disorienting: three tourists, from three different ethnic groups, with three different accents, stand in robes and pajamas by the vending machine outside a cheap L.A. motel, discussing a potato chip mishap with philosophical gravity. The lisping Indian mispronounces “potato” (it sounds like he’s slurring “poito”) nine times in a row to the uncomprehending African before the European steps in to clarify things. They then laugh about the misunderstanding for almost a minute. Hosking pushes his non-joke as far as he can, drawing it out as long as possible until it becomes meta-funny. And I confess it did make me laugh, not so much at the inherent comedy of the scene as in appreciation of how far the writers were willing to go and how hard the actors were willing to work to sell the non-starter gag. That scene, of course, is not the end of it; later, a similarly notorious exchange between Big Ronnie and Brayden will try your patience for two-and-a-half minutes. That doesn’t sound like too much until you realize that, for a ninety minute film, that single back-and-forth scene comprises about 2.5% of the entire movie. It’s hard not to giggle a little at that thought alone.
Neither of the other two elements, alone or in combination, would be quite enough for us to count The Greasy Strangler as among the 366 movies most worthy of our attention. Thankfully, there are flecks of inexplicable miscellaneous weirdness to fill in the gaps. Andrew Hung’s sampled Casio-style score, which sounds like the Keyboard Cat got drunk and put out a disco album, sets the mood. The faux-incompetent acting creates another layer of unreality: Sky Elobar sounds like he’s doing a bad impression of Will Ferrel at his most grating (in context, that’s a compliment), while many of the small speaking roles seem to have been handed out to amateurs chosen for their odd elocution or speech impediments. It’s all played out in a Los Angeles bent out of time; there are no cars (and only a single woman), and other than the war stories from the Seventies and Eighties there’s nothing to orient the film in modern times. Using girly pink as the theme color is another strange-but-effective stylistic choice. Folded into the mix of nausea and irony are moments of true surrealism. Wearing his improbably revealing disco-dancing outfit, Big Ronnie hoofs it for the unseen audience when a random spotlight picks him out while walking down a back alley. Oinker, Brayden’s gay stereotype friend who wears a pig snout, is a complete non-sequitur of a character. And the ending embraces the movie’s weirdness fully in a finale that sees father and son executed by firing squad for their crimes, their heads exploding into fireworks displays, only to survive via greasy alter-egos who, the film implies, spend their final days in the Sierra Nevadas fighting mountain goats with homemade spears.
After my first viewing, I wrote that the film has “got a lot of balls (literally) but no heart.” That’s not completely true. Although “grossly” distorted, the dysfunctional father/son relationship has a real psychology to it. There comes a time when many sons discover that their father is a “monster”—not literally a grease-covered strangler, but perhaps an adulterer or a passive-aggressive verbal abuser. But he’s still your dad, and watcha gonna do? From pop’s perspective, many sons turn out to be wimpy disappointments like Brayden, and need a little nudge to get angry, stand up to daddy, and seize their own manhood. (The, um, size differential between the two men reflects their alpha/beta status). Their unhealthy, mutually destructive co-dependence is sad but also, by the end, a little sweet—although it’s too bad that the movie’s only female character’s ultimate function is to be the wedge that paradoxically drives them together.
The movie’s biggest claim to fame, however, will be in bringing a greasy midnight movie spirit to a new generation. For many millennials, The Greasy Strangler will be their first exposure to an underground shock cinema that’s actually well-made and witty, and their first contact with an aggressively and unapologetically unique and weird cinematic sensibility. It’s a movie for the young, but so were Waters’ trash films at one time—now, the Prince of Puke has wormed his way from the fringes of the underground to the fringes of the canon. Hoskins is unlikely to make the same journey to respectability, but it will be fun to watch him try, especially if he can find a way to alienate as many preachers and old ladies along the trip as Waters did.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the general professionalism and even elegance of The Greasy Strangler might make it seem, to people who insist on their weirdness raw, a little contrived. Sometimes it undeniably tries too hard: Andrew Hung’s music, with its varispeed Chipmunks voices and Residents/Ariel Pink goofiness, somewhat forces the joke. Nevertheless, elegance there is: as witness the repeated flurries of fast cutting every time Big Ronnie sheds his body grease in visits to the car wash. It has auteur coherence too.”–Johnathan Romney, Film Comment (contemporaneous)
“…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.”–Rus Fischer, Indiewire (festival review)
IMDB LINK: The Greasy Strangler (2016)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Jim Hosking – The director provides pretty much his entire short film and commercial portfolio for your viewing pleasure on his home page
The Greasy Strangler: ‘Hopefully the imagery will stay with people’ – Guardian article on the film, with Hosking quotes
Elijah Wood pitches ‘The Greasy Strangler’ to a stranger on the phone – segment for a New Zealand radio show (includes some strong language and the NSFW trailer)
‘The Greasy Strangler’: The Story Behind 2016’s Most Disgusting Movie – Rolling Stone article on the film (that arguably oversells the disgust factor, if that’s possible)
‘The Greasy Strangler’: Inside the Most WTF Movie of the Year – Indiewire’s Jen Yamato interviews De Razzo and St. Michaels at a karaoke bar in between tequila shots
The Greasy Strangler interview – Fantastic Fest exclusive – “Let’s Go DFW!” briefly interviews Michael St. Michaels and Elizabeth De Razzo at Fantastic Fest
‘The Greasy Strangler’ Producer Elijah Wood Talks Father-Son Rivalry, Naked Men and Body Parts – “The Wrap” short video interview with three producers
FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/22/2016 (MICHAEL REICH & MIKE PINKNEY, PEDRO RIVERO, THE GREASY STRANGLER) – This site’s first encounter with the film at the Fantasia Film Festival
DVD INFO: The Film Rise DVD (buy) comes with many bonus features, including three trailers (all NSFW), eight interviews with cast and crew, and a commentary with director Hosking and stars St. Michaels and Elobar.
The same features are available on Blu-ray (buy), with extra-greasy definition.
Naturally, The Greasy Strangler is also available for digital download or rental (buy or rent).