They say there’s no accounting for taste, and here to prove it is The Greasy Strangler. A fringe-inhabiting genre provocation destined for a self-selecting audience with strong stomachs, co-writer/director Jim Hosking’s feature-length whatsit tests sensibilities, but Hosking forgets that oddity isn’t a substitute for quality.
The film offers a chance to see Los Angeles as you've never cared to before via Big Ronnie's Disco Tours, a family business run by middle-aged Brayden (Sky Elobar) and his father, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels). We first meet the business partners/roommates in the latter’s bedroom, their guts hanging over their underwear as they discuss the merits of grease (or lack thereof: Brayden reports that too much of the ubiquitous substance is unhealthy, which he read in a fitness magazine found on a bus). “You’re such a gross-out,” the younger of the two says to his oil-obsessed father in a moment of pure audience surrogacy. “I think I might barf.” Take it as a sign of things to come, if not an outright warning.
The title alludes to Big Ronnie’s nighttime activities: covering himself in mounds of buttery grease, ending some poor soul’s life with his bare hands, and cleansing himself by walking through a drive-through car wash. (Perhaps the film’s only funny recurring joke: his habit of shoehorning unprompted denials that he’s the Greasy Strangler into completely unrelated conversations.) In between, father and son fight over the affections of a woman many years their junior (Elizabeth De Razzo) whom they first met during one of their tours. Rinse, repeat, and on The Greasy Strangler goes for 90 minutes of increasingly diminishing returns.
Asking any one person whether a movie like this is “good” or “bad” is probably pointless — its lackadaisical approach to developing the plot and/or characters invites the built-in “you just don’t get it” excuse — so know instead that The Greasy Strangler’s weirdness circles around the block and then comes back again. Among its overtly (and at times self-consciously) outré elements are popped-out eyeballs, a comically large/disgusting prosthetic penis, ad-nauseam use of the insult “bullshit artist” and, of course, an abundance of grease-fueled murders. (Providing context on these elements wouldn’t much clarify matters.) An apparent hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The Greasy Strangler is hard to make heads or tails of in the cold light of day, far removed from that thin mountain air.
Most scenes are propelled less by any clear narrative purpose and more by a bizarreness so strong that it refuses to stay stagnant; were it not for the production value and general competency of all involved, you’d swear this was some shot-on-camcorder oddity unearthed by one of our last remaining video stores. That it’s actually well made and presented with the utmost confidence may have you convinced, at least for a while, that there’s something more to it than surface-level shock value. Mazel tov to anyone who can find it, but to these eyes it looks like first-draft John Waters by way of Tales From the Quadead Zone.
For as easy as it is to be oddly impressed by the brazenness of Hosking’s vision, it’s equally difficult not to lose patience with it the longer The Greasy Strangler goes on without bothering to have its eccentricity take on a new, more thought-out form. Hosking knows how to grab our attention, but not hold it in a meaningful way.