You know the thing about cult films no one ever really mentions? They’re usually good. I mean, films like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and The Big Lebowski, were all made by competent people who actually cared about what they were doing. Even cult films which developed a cult specifically for being awful, like Plan 9 From Outer Space, are instructive and useful in their awfulness, and were still made with earnestness and care. Watching an Ed Wood film you can see, quite plainly, all the parts which do not work and feel more grateful for the films that do.
What seems glaringly apparent, however, is that a filmmaker cannot deliberately set out to make a cult film. Yet, this is precisely what Jim Hosking tries to do with The Greasy Strangler, and what you see is what you get. There is a strangler on the loose, you see, and before he asphyxiates his unknowing victims, he covers every inch of his body with cooking fat. That this would reduce the friction of his grip is ignored by the filmmakers, as is every sense of logic, characterisation, narrative, drama, humour, good sense, and intelligence. Sorry—I meant to describe the film more clearly before I began insulting it. Some things just won’t wait their turn.
Anyway, for a film called The Greasy Strangler, there’s not a lot of strangling. Most of it involves a discourteous old man named Big Ronnie, who lives with his adult son Brayden. Together, they run a Disco Walking Tour, which sounds interesting but is little more than Ronnie pointing at abandoned buildings and saying things like ‘Robert Bell from Kool & the Gang once took a shit there.’ Who would take such a pointless excursion? I’ll get there in a second.
One day Janet, a woman of about Brayden’s age, takes the walking tour and he’s instantly smitten. Given that Brayden has never had sex, or even been kissed, or likely been touched, or apparently ever been in the presence of a female human being ever in his life, you’d think Ronnie would let him have this one. But no, the father decides to swoop in to steal his son’s girl, and now we have a love triangle that takes up far too much of a film that still thinks it might be some kind of horror movie.
The Greasy Strangler is desperate. Hosking and his co-scenarist Toby Harvard know that cult members of certain films love to quote dialogue from the objects of their affection. (Among my circle, anyway, random lines from The Princess Bride or Anchorman still crop up in otherwise normal conversation. I’m in a glass cage of emotion!) Here, they know exactly which lines they want people to latch on to, and so have their characters repeat them ad nauseam. Maybe it was (slightly) amusing to hear a character say ‘Bullshit artist!’ to another as a way to indicate they were lying, but it is not amusing the eighty-sixth time. Or the eighty-seventh. Or the eighty-ninth or the hundred-and-twelfth.
And this happens over and over again. Who actually deigns to take the Disco Walking Tour? Immigrants, of course! Doddering brown people with amusing broken accents Hosking can point at and make fun of. There is one scene, so wincingly unfunny, where an Indian tourist can’t say potato correctly. Asked to slow down and enunciate, the Indian man hurriedly says ‘pittittoo’ again, and again, and again. Maybe the mispronunciation was (slightly) amusing the first time, but it is not amusing the eighty-sixth time. Or the eighty-seventh. Or the eighty-ninth or the hundred-and-twelfth. Hosking repeats this bizarre dialogue and snippets of line readings because he wants to you find them so funny please laugh and quote these lines with your friends please quote them LIKE ME PLEASE LIKE ME.
What really undoes The Greasy Strangler is how mean it is. Hosking doesn’t only hold brown people with funny accents up for ridicule, he does it to the entire cast. Remember Janet, whom Brayden falls in love with? She’s fat. No two ways about it, she quite a lumpy woman, and Hosking finds this hilarious. He has her naked a lot, is fascinated with her breasts and stomach, and gives the actress playing her the largest merkin I think I’ve ever seen.
Here’s why I think we’re supposed to be laughing at her body: Everyone is frequently naked, and Hosking thinks all the flesh is hilarious. Not only does Hosking love Big Ronnie’s wrinkled body, sagging buttocks, and craggy face, but he also gives the character a comically large, ferociously uncircumcised penis. Not only does Hosking love Brayden’s bulging stomach, blotchy complexion, and balding head, but he also gives the character a comically red micropenis. Anything remotely sexual is held up as an object of contempt. It’s like an Andrew Dice Clay bit from the 1990s come to life.
Understand, I’m not offended by the ‘representation’ of any of the characters—I don’t think that’s a very sophisticated reason for disliking a movie. What I object to is the deliberate, dull-witted puerility of Hosking’s humour. He’s like the kid on the playground who points at the three-legged dog and says, ‘Lol!’ And that’s the whole joke. This style of comedy grates after about ten minutes, and The Greasy Strangler goes on for 93.
Remember the end of John Waters’s A Dirty Shame? It was a gleeful sexual celebration. Every body type imaginable was on display, all playfully revelling in the various fetishes and sexual expressions humans are capable of. There, John Waters created a glorious paeon to sexuality. Here, the celebration has been perverted into a distasteful black mass.
I’d like to end this review by speaking directly to David Ayer. I hated Suicide Squad, man. I really did. I know the studio kinda screwed you over on that one, but it was ultimately so nasty and nihilistic that I listed it as the worst film of the year. You see, I just hadn’t gotten around to seeing The Greasy Strangler yet; if I had, no way would I ever have given you such an ignominious dishonour. I’d rather watch Suicide Squad half a dozen more times than to ever hear even the music from The Greasy Strangler again. For this, I sincerely apologise.