I can’t place exactly how long it was after seeing The Greasy Strangler that it began to dawn on me: the cartoonish body horror that had turned my stomach, the tyranny of obnoxious episodes that had made my skin crawl, the amoral psychology that had rendered even a hint of empathy for its story an abject impossibility… I was remembering all of this fondly. The movie had, somehow, grown on me.
And not even in spite of these transgressions, but precisely because of them was I, soon enough, thinking about The Greasy Strangler as downright laudable. The movie does itself very few favors in the interest of winning over an audience. Its aesthetic and score are broad and unsettling; its characters are irreconcilably unlikable; most of all, its plot lands entirely independent from the luxury of a motivating narrative, and frequently halts from what it can, with liberties, regard as its paltry excuse for a story to engage with menacingly overlong exercises in anti-humor. For instance: the particularly exasperating sequence in which one minor character struggles to pronounce the word “potato” to another’s satisfaction… this is all moments before both characters are removed from the picture by the eponymous greasy strangler. Oh yes—the title is very literal.
See, when not shoveling down fatty breakfasts, berating his spineless adult son, or leading disappointing disco-themed tours of his hometown, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) spends his time skulking the night streets lathered in a thick, thick coat of grease, looking for subjects of his latest endeavor strangling. Whether by virtue of the grease, some inborn mutation, or simply a liberal enough logical fabric holding the film together, Big Ronnie becomes superhumanly strong during these outings, consequently contorting his victim’s bodies in all sorts of surreal, sometimes silly and always unsightly ways. Why does he do this? If the movie offers any response to that question, its, “Who gives a damn?”
The standing routine is disrupted when bozo son Big Brayden (Sky Elobar) attracts the attention of his very first girlfriend, Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), leaving his sociopathic father acting out for attention from both parties. The offbeat love triangle begets a master course in emotional torment, provokes an increasingly sinister array of slayings, and ultimately inspires a low-rent cat-and-mouse game in which Brayden vies to out his father once and for all as the area’s most notorious serial killer… which really shouldn’t take as much effort as it does, considering Big Ronnie’s habit of identifying himself as the Greasy Strangler in everyday conversation.
Whereas a picture’s evolution into a sleuth story would ordinarily entail the phrase, “The plot thickens!” that is in fact the furthest thing from the truth in The Greasy Strangler. Things become less beholden to any coherent premise as they carry forth, diverting more and more attention to the provocation of physical and psychological unrest. This endeavor really comes to a head in the film’s conclusion, which is as nauseatingly nihilistic as its leading 90 minutes could have promised.
So how, then, have I somehow come around on a movie so packed to the brim with unpleasantness? Difficult to say. I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed my experience sitting through The Greasy Strangler. I know I won’t be watching it again anytime soon. But after all this time spent stewing in its wake, I’d be lying to say that I’m not impressed with it. It’s vile, it’s intrusive, and it’s annoying, but it’s strikingly, creatively, and impressively so. And, to boot, really freakin’ weird.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.