I wouldn’t consider myself the most adventurous cinefile. The more strange and bizarre crevices of the cult film canon I shy away from, opting for the safer conventional narrative structures and cohesive storytelling. When I go see a genuinely weird movie, I leave feeling so uncool thinking “who is this for?” I realize there’s merit in pushing the limits of cinema and often these types of filmmakers’ goal is to break the mold. There are some instances where I can respect that like with John Water’s newly restored 1970’s black and white feature Multiple Maniacs with its counterculture sensibilities aimed to shake up the conservative suburbs he grew up in. The film’s guerrilla style tactics and raw production value provide a unique experience as you feel a part of this crew of Baltimore misfits, accomplices in their dirty deeds. Adversely, the horror/comedy The Greasy Strangler which draws heavily from Waters’ off kilter performances aesthetic paired with the deadpan delivery of Tim&Eric is aimless and egregious through gratuitous male nudity and consumption of grotesque substances. Maniacs works because of its place in film history as the unpredictable and untrained early emergence of independent filmmaking while Strangler is a sequence of “made you look” moments as characters’ dicks hang and farts rip.
Multiple Maniacs is the best kind of amateurish filmmaking. The camera work is shoddy as it often drifts in and out of focus and every actor is delivering their lines at an unplacable pace and cadence. Yet even with budgetary limitations, the movie goes all out. The opening carnival of oddities wherein we meet our band of conning, drug addled, horny misfits is obviously some tents propped up in a patch of land next to a development of houses and yet is completely charming. You can tell everyone involved is just excited to make a movie. The young actors used to play the uptight observers of the unacceptable musings are noticeably breaking character as they fake appallment at two men kissing. This perverse story only escalates as the unconventional behavior continues to the most inflammatory sex ever to take place in a church pew intercut with reenactments of a slightly modern take on the Stations of the Cross. If that wasn’t shocking enough, the real astonishing scene is that of a monstrous, most likely paper mache, crustacean first attacking then presumably raping our antagonist, Divine, after she has brutally murdered everyone she knows. Nothing has blindsided me that intensely since the giant spider from Enemy which still haunts my nightmares. Amidst the madness, Divine scream/laughs her way through the whole ordeal with a grin on her face as she can’t even believe it’s happening.
It should be noted how engrossing Divine is as the cinematic focal point. The film knows as much as the audience that she is an icon to behold. The opening carnival is all leading up to her reveal which couldn’t be more perfect as she lies naked on a ottoman admiring her own beauty in a hand mirror. You inherently love her because everyone around her does. She is indeed larger than life as her sarcasm and wit emanate from the screen. You realize how important she is when all scenes she’s not involved in begin to drag underneath labored dialogue because to be honest, there’s not that much happening. Once she returns with her leopard print skirt and brash attitude you can’t look away. The narrative revolves around her unhinging, inspired by the Manson murders which is addressed head on within the film. Waters is clearly making a reactionary piece of ordinary people trying to make sense of those unimaginable killings in California. He presents the most profane and hedonistic collective who end up destroying themselves from within and Divine becomes this enraged beast rampaging through Baltimore as civilians run in fear. Not the smoothest allegory but what can you expect from a film crew constantly tripping on acid. It still gets in its winks and nods to the camera, aware of its insanity and reveling in it.
The Greasy Strangler is its own branch of off beat comedy, a little John Waters mixed with Tim&Eric. The father/son pairing represent the latter as the plot centers around the constantly bickering characters as the elder, Big Ronnie (Michael St Michaels), is domineering and bossy while the younger, Big Brayden (a Eric Wareheim looking Sky Elobar), is timid, subservient and most prevalent hobby seems to be crying. Together they run a makeshift tour company scamming unsuspecting tourists as they dress up in bright pink outfits and present abandon warehouses, claiming it was historically significant in the world of disco. Often when customers are unsatisfied Ronnie hunts them down and murders them because he moonlights as a lard ladened serial killer. Yes, the film only spirals downward from here as a woman, Eastbound and Down’s Elizabeth De Rozzo playing Janet, threatens to tear the duo apart. All this set up seems to resemble a plot which gives it slightly as much narrative as Multiple Maniacs but at least that movie moves forward. Greasy Strangler is obsessed with repetition therefor scenes and conversations are repeated ad nauseam. This leads to massive stalls the plot as we have to pause for 5 minutes of yelling back and forth. Director/writer Jim Hosking believes in his own comedy rule of ten. There are instances where this works for example with the ethnically mish mashed tour group where we listen to an Indian man incomprehensibly pronounce potato or later when the men’s relationship with Janet turns sexual and as verbal foreplay they begin yelling “hootie tootie disco cutie” at an unflinching volume. These are the few jokes that entertained me but other than that any amusement relies on flagrant dick shots as Hosking’s is convinced a penis, no matter how big or small, will always get a laugh.
There’s so much intended shock value here that would make the Dreamland team proud. Aside from prosthetic appendages, grease does indeed play a large role in the plot as the title promises. The props department intensified every scene involving food with buckets of vaseline thick gravy that serves as grease which Ronnie craves. Whether he’s smeared in it or lapping it up, you can’t escape the substance. The grossness continues with the cartoonish murders in which eyes pop out skulls with ease and our artfully dined on by the killer. Even with a decapitated head being kicked around and sticking fingers into bloody faces, the food related repulsion got to me the most. The film devolves into a nonsensical ending which furthers my opinion that this has all been ultimately pointless. There’s little substance beyond the two leads bickering. If you find their animosity humorous as they shout “bullshit artist” at each then this is for you. De Rozzo does a great job being a neutral character between the grotesque men but it’s a bit too similar to her role in Eastbound as Brayden is equally as fragile and emasculated as Steve Little’s Stevie.
It seems unfair to praise Maniacs for it’s weirdness yet punish Strangler for the same reason but it comes down to the spontaneity and originality that Maniacs had on its side in the 1970’s. Niche cinema was still fresh then. In 2016 there’s many facets of absurdist comedy, some that I adore immensely like the filmographies of all The State members with their charming no sequiturs and silly antics but then there’s the rise of the Adult Swim peculiarities. That kind of forced insanity and vulgarity rubs me the wrong way. It wants you to wallow in its indecency and gross out humor. That plus the mean spirited nature which is apparent in Strangler, I find immediately off putting. There’s lots of people who will see this and claim it’s brilliant. I don’t want to be the censorship police as I’m glad there are films that go against the grain and break away from societal norms. That was John Water’s whole philosophy. It’s great that there are movies not made for the masses and are intended for a select few. I’m fine with being excluded from this one. It’s not that I don’t get it, I just don’t want it. Maybe I’ve become a square like those ogglers of Divine’s freak show. Fascinated enough to peek in but disgusted by what they see. Never thought I’d be my old-fashioned type but give me traditional gore and mutilation. I don’t need anything more vomit inducing than that.