The Greasy Strangler was recommended to me by a friend who has a similar taste in horror films and appreciation for trash cinema. I took his word as bond, though I wouldn’t finally watch this film until about over a year later. When I finally watched it and let him know, he informed me that he had actually only made it through about halfway. That tricky bastard.
To be fair to my friend, The Greasy Strangler was on my radar for some time. The word on the film was that it had a very odd and awkward sensibility. The most common description I had seen people make early on was “What if Tim & Eric directed a horror film.” Having seen the film now, that description falls short. Sure, the film leans heavily on cringe and the aesthetics do reflect Tim & Eric’s own public access channel of the grotesque, but that’s where I would say similarities end. That, and one of the lead actors does bear a resemblance to Eric Wareheim. No, I would probably say this has more in common with Napoleon Dynamite, that bogus sleeper hit from 2005.
Both films are set in a vague and ambiguous time period; slightly modern enough to be the present (at time of filming) but also anachronistic enough as if to be parody. They also parade about a cast of outcasts and weirdos with eccentricities that border on pathological and their outfits are daring and repulsive at the same time. Everything about this film aims to be repulsive in some manner, be it the characters’ personalities and behaviours, the dialogue, the color pallete. It’s garish and repulsive where Dynamite was garish and charming (even if ultimately not as charming as it thought itself to be).
The Greasy Strangler concerns a father-son duo who hurl abuse at each other like well-greased clockwork. Chief insult between them is the use of the term “Bullshit Artist,” which might as well substitute for a term of endearment. They run a disco walking tour, suckering rubes with bullshit (ah, I see it now) stories about famed disco/funk acts that just happened to have hung around in the same city all this time before hitting it big. This is used as a vehicle for interactions with characters that are supposed to be absurd to the point of comical. Take for instance, one of the first tours where a man (who is indicated to be foreign) continues to interrupt the father demanding a free beverage, as was promised by the tour’s promotional material. It’s played for laughs, and it is slightly funny, but one could also read it as a deeper commentary on consumer culture; how we as consumers are expected to be owed something because it was promised. We entered into a contract upon purchase and if not all expected goods were delivered, we feel it is in our right to voice our displeasure.
Nah, fuck that. It’s an opportunity for a foreigner to complain in a ridiculous accent and we all can laugh at his indignity. Laugh at the man who is not even from here and his indignity! Laugh at him!
I don’t think there was any intention to mock this man for his ethnicity in this scene, but it lines up pretty close to that, so best to examine much of these things carefully. It never divulges into something uglier than it needs to be; it is just a man who has been walking on this bullshit (there’s that word again!) tour all day and wants a drink. Really, there’s nothing deep to it at all. In fact, there’s nothing deep about this film in the slightest. It’s just a series of interactions with no real plot. The crux of the film is meant to be about a so-called “Greasy Strangler,” some sort of boogeyman killer lurking in the shadows, slathered in grease, strangling people. He’s like the Boston Strangler, except greasier and probably not from Boston.
I have no qualms spoiling it because the film pretty much outs it in the first fifteen minutes, but the father is The Greasy Strangler. They telegraph it pretty early on, with the father’s obsession with grease (he is adamant that people would love their coffee to be loaded with a jackton of grease) and his cryptic musing that with said obsession, his son must think he’s the titular strangler (to which the son calls “bullshit artist”).
This film is not a film I can recommend. I have no opinion on it. Is it terrible? Wasn’t that the point? How much old man penis can you handle? This film is loaded with nonsense and absurdity to the point that you’re drowning in a twisted pretension that could be seen as a deconstruction of pretentious arthouse films. It’s hardly introspective and is barely functional but goddammit, it is actually coherent. It follows its own rules and it doesn’t stray. The world it lives in is one where a man can flash money that is clearly just scraps of paper with Sharpie-inked pictures to pay for a hot dog and the vendor will gladly accept it. This is a world where people willingly pay for walking disco tours. This is a world where a man coats himself in grease to strangle people to death and then goes to an all-night car wash to clean himself off. This is a world where a man has an actual pig snout for a nose but it is clearly a very badly designed prop nose. This is a film where certain scenes seem to go on forever, and when I thought the film itself was nearly over, I was only approaching the halfway mark.
Greasy Strangler is a parody of some kind but for the life of me, I don’t care. I don’t want to think too deeply about it. On the surface, this film is perfectly cromulent and something you can turn on late at night and watch with friends, to share in a collective mindfuck. This is not a film to experience alone, much like Eraserhead. In fact, watch both back-to-back and let me know when you were finally able to sleep.
The Scenes In Question: Tourists Buy Chips/Big Ronny Buys a Dog/Oinker
I’m choosing three scenes because, honestly, these are the three scenes that probably won’t scar you but do well to present the reality in which the film exists.
I don’t think I can articulate well what happens in these scenes. You really have to just watch them, multiple viewings even, to truly grasp the brutal cinematic experience on display. However, not attempting to analyze what happens in these clips would be a disservice and violation of the core value of this feature.
In the first clip, the three tourists from the disco tour are gathered around a hotel vending machine. One of the tourists is (low-energy) enraged that the machine took their dollar but did not live up to the other end of the social agreement by releasing a bag of chips. This scene goes on for two minutes, of which a large chunk is just one tourist asking the other what kind of chips they were over and over. It’s Vaudevillian in a way, echoing the classic “Who’s On First” routine but if it had been written by a comedian from the 1980s. This feels like an act that could be played out in front of a faux-brick wall and then be followed by a routine about why airplane food is bad. Once the communication failure is repaired, it is followed by a sitcom-esque group laugh (bright, cheery, and definitely awkward).
Oh those wacky tourists! I want an entire film about their time together, bonding over language barriers and bagged snack foods. And spoiler alert, but what this clip doesn’t reveal is that these three gentlemen are soon victims of the Greasy Strangler, who punches one of these men so hard in the face, it collapses inward.
The second clip is also framed around an awkward interaction. The main character of Big Ronny is out on the prowl for some late night street dogs. That’s not a euphemism, he is literally purchasing hot dogs from a street vendor. The vendor is acted by someone who definitely has had no prior acting experience and probably will have no future acting experiences. I could be wrong and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong about things. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things.
The way he counts to three with his fingers by popping out the middle finger first, and his insistence that dunking Big Ronny’s dog in the grease would be a violation of health codes and that he would lose his license are such exaggerated characterizations that they are not meant to be taken seriously. In response, Big Ronny grows ever more indignant that this by-the-book vendor is steadfast in denying him the grease that his dry throat so clearly craves. So Big Ronny “complies,” in that he tosses down three “dollars” as a distraction so he can commandeer the cart’s grease trap and dunk his dog “all the way in.”
The final clip is almost too strange for words, but it is the best representation of what this film aims to be – its thesis is in this clip. The movie is about strange characters with exaggerations of typical human behaviors and nothing makes sense. Nothing. Just watch that clip again. Watch it and try to explain it to me. That’s right, I’m asking YOU, the reader, to dissect a scene for ME. I dare you, really. Watch this and tell me what the fuck is going on here.
Now, I want to circle back for a bit on something I said earlier. I had drawn a parallel between this film’s style and those of Tim & Eric and Napoleon Dynamite, that this film had more in common with the latter than the former. I think that still holds true to me, but I’ve had time to think this over and something else occurred to me. A lot of Tim & Eric sketches made use of cringe humor and anti-humor. Along that same thought, The Greasy Strangler has elements of cringe in effort to make scenes feel uncomfortable. We could also call it an anti-horror film along those lines. It uses elements of horror but it really isn’t a horror film. There’s no scares, no subtle (or obvious even) social commentary, no stakes. There’s a sense that the characters are in danger but you don’t really care about them enough to have empathy. The kills are played for laughs, more comical than maniacal. Too strange but not enough to be terrifying. It is a cringe film wrapped up as a horror film. It also makes extensive use of anti-humor, wherein it sets up jokes that aren’t really jokes and the humor is derived from either awkward situations or repetition, as evidenced in much of the dialogue in the selected scenes.
I could also be completely speaking out of my ass on all of this and have not understood a damn thing.
I don’t have a concrete opinion on The Greasy Strangler. It is a film that exists, and I think that was its objective. It isn’t challenging in an art or indie film sense, but it also isn’t simple. I’m hesitant to say it is a complex film because that would mean it has depth, which it doesn’t. It’s difficult to pin down, likely due to its oily nature.
There’s no easy way to break down this film. It is evocative of the exploitation and grindhouse films of the 80’s, much like a Frank Henenlotter or Jim Wynorski film. It could easily fit into place between anything directed by those directors on the display case at your local video rental store, curiously stocked in the horror section. Again, this isn’t a straight horror film (in relation to Henenlotter, who has stated that he does not view his most well-known films Basket Case and Frankenhooker as horror nor himself a horror director but instead exploitation). It feels transgressive in its use of the horror template, stretching out the fabric until its thin enough to tear with ease. Then it stitched the pieces together into an asymmetrical patchwork of tropes and pastiches. Perhaps I’m giving it way more credit and thought than it deserves and maybe I’m missing the point (if there is a point). To be honest, having to think about this film in such a way has caused my brain to fail me and my thoughts have undergone several rounds of mutations that they no longer resemble the thoughts I had in the beginning.
To put it plainly, …Strangler fits no genre perfectly and any attempt to define it is a fool’s errand because it doesn’t exist to be defined or explored critically. It exists and that is all.