“Too much grease is bad for you.
I read it in a fitness magazine someone left on the bus.”
All films are guilty of wanting something. Just look at 2016’s offerings: March played host to the gargantuan Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film which squished what felt like an entire Marvel wave into 151 minutes, seemingly only in the pursuit of a license to print money; while, up the other end of the movie calendar (and already out in the US), December will deliver The Birth of a Nation. Proudly brandishing the torn scalp of a reclaimed title and boasting a provocative and timely (if entirely underbaked) narrative, Nate Parker’s debut has a pitiful, aching desperation for awards it no longer has any chance of winning.
Those two examples, ladies and gentlemen, are microcosmic of the primary ambitions of the entire cinema industry: grabs for money and/or trophies.
But just over there, in the corner of your eye, wandering through only the most select of cinemas (as well as DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD), prowls an anomaly, and an oleaginous one at that. Known only as The Greasy Strangler, this is a film which is openly nonchalant – or, perhaps, outright contemptuous – of box office receipts and shiny gongs. Its content is so consistently bizarre, in fact, it’s a surprise editors even managed to gather a trailer fit for YouTube from its series of increasingly sebaceous sequences.
Handfuls of critics and audiences have been quick to condemn Strangler as something ghastly, which isn’t entirely untrue. At the time of writing, it holds a Fresh rating (just) over at that faithful barometer of quality, Rotten Tomatoes (although its usually more indicative indicator, its Audience Score, has now decayed to Rotten). Even the oracle of all knowledge, Wikipedia, is bemused – its entry for The Greasy Strangler doesn’t even bother to offer the option for a plot summary, let alone attempt to provide you with one.
So, what does a film such as this crave? Is it just the disgust and infamy that its juvenile material suggests? Or does The Greasy Strangler actually have loftier aspirations?
Of course it does, and it’s simple: just as Snyder and Parker’s pieces anxiously chase down different mediums of potential gold, Jim Hosking’s inaugural feature-length wants nothing more than to be celebrated as a ‘cult film’. Every image, every shot, every use of its ’80s arcade game via The Simpson‘s Happy Little Elves soundtrack is single-mindedly designed to achieve this status.
By hook or by crook, The Greasy Strangler must become a cult movie by the end of its 93 minute running time.
But what makes a cult movie in the first place? Well, that’s hard to define exactly. Like a pillock, you know one when you see one. There are threads and patterns, of course, so Hosking goes for broke and stuffs as many of these hallmarks into a sort of Shopping List of Transgression. Ultraviolence? Yep. Explicit sex? Go on then. Fandom opportunities? You bet. Ironically awful performances? By the dozen.
Strangely, The Greasy Strangler actually begins in unassuming fashion. Hosking’s camera ambles through a fairly working class home in a suburb of Los Angeles, taking in its homely setting. A middle-aged, balding man wearing Bo Selecta! spectacles steps out in front of the lens, nude except for a pair of uncomfortably tight underpants, and crosses the upstairs’ hallway to go and awaken his elderly father, Big Ronnie. There’s something ritualistic about how Brayden approaches his father, a septuagenarian whose looks lend themselves to the fantasy of Doctor Emmet Brown sinisterly reimagined as a villain. Ronnie accepts a mug of coffee without thanks and eyeballs his son with an uncomfortable glare. “People like milky coffee,” he mutters. “Why not put a little grease in your coffee?”
It’s the first of many ‘Why?!’ exclamations audiences will blurt across the entire movie, but once The Greasy Strangler‘s raison d’être seeps into your screening, the film begins to make a crooked sense, and all questions are easily answered. Why do Brayden and Ronnie wear matching hot-pink turtleneck-and-shorts combos? So fans can wear them at the midnight screenings! Why does each man sport a hideous, obviously prosthetic penis throughout? So fans can wear them at midnight screenings! Why does Ronnie end up in a crotchless, purple disco-diva suit? So fans can – you get the picture.
Is all of this okay? Surely all cult films achieve their reputations through a series of accidents, not via acute design? Reviews for The Greasy Strangler, both negative and positive, have nearly all been overly concerned with Hosking’s Shopping List of Transgression and the ensuing vulgarities and misdemeanours, which have provided a marvellously dense smokescreen for the director’s more needy motivation. Honestly, Strangler is no more obscene than one of the later, more puerile episodes of Little Britain (a sketch show broadcast on BBC One at primetime), and certainly never reaches the graphic, mischievous depravity of one of the year’s best films, The Neon Demon.
At worst, there is something disingenuous about The Greasy Strangler, and too much method to its madness. While similar movies have earned their cultish stripes, there is a feeling this may have hustled them. When the film does strikes oil, there’s a spluttering, hypnogogic joy to be had. The onscreen partnership between Ronnie and Brayden is nearly always arresting: Michael St. Michaels triumphantly asphyxiates every scene he’s in, be it as the crotchety geriatric or his slimy serial killing alter ego, and Brayden sets up camp on the sweet side of dorky.
But, for every idiosyncratic delight, audiences are forced to endure the likes of Oinker – a fleeting, one noted character, dressed in a knitted jumper, hot pants, knee-high socks, eyeliner, “rented” ballet pumps, and a crudely made cardboard pig’s snout (which hides an open and gory nasal cavity).
“Why?” I hear you exclaim. Because this is a cult film, people, and it’s probably going to played at midnight somewhere. Quick, go and get a ticket, some ballet pumps and a cardboard snout, and you’ll be good to go.
Hosking goes on to spend chunks and chunks of his sparse running time attempting to condition us, Pavlov style, into learning his characters’ catchphrases: we spend a minute and a half listening to an Indian man screech “potato” in a thick accent; just over two minutes of Ronnie and Brayden slinging no dialogue except variations of “bullshit artist” at each other (resulting in the admittedly enjoyable “bullshit, horseshit, catshit, tigershit, lionshit, duckshit, walrusshit, penguinshit, kingpenguinshit!”); and an equal amount of time is spent with Ronnie and his (and Brayden’s) love interest Janet chanting “hootie-tootie disco cutie” in various aggressive positions around his bedroom.
Why? Why? Why?!
Well, what else are they going to say at midnight screenings?
Those who do appreciate The Greasy Strangler (and I have to say: for the most part, I did – quite immensely) might be left wishing its full-throttled commitment to balls-out surrealism had been somewhat less prescriptive, but it does remain ludicrous fun, and an oily gust of air in a stuffy market obsessed with cash and luvvie prestige.
Whether or not it achieves its voguish status is subjective, but The Greasy Strangler is still worth a watch. Just don’t forget to turn up at midnight.