Sundance 2016: ‘The Greasy Strangler’ is Not The Trash-terpiece You’re Looking For

The Greasy Strangler
Written by Toby Harvard and Jim Hosking
Directed by Jim Hosking
U.S., 2016

I wanted to walk out of the screening with the third of the audience that eventually had by the time the credits began rolling, but at the same time I couldn’t take my eyes off what was happening. The Greasy Strangler is too bad to be good at being the trash-terpiece it wants to be, but at the same time it’s so far out there in its own element that I had to kind of admire what I was seeing. It’s hard to describe exactly what The Greasy Strangler is, and I suppose that is where it’s supposed charm lies. Think of something on the cringe-comedy scale that Tim and Eric would cosign; in fact I was semi-surprised to not see their names in the credits somewhere. To the film’s credit, as much as I dislike it, I can’t stop thinking about it.

The plot, as much as Jim Hosking’s film sticks to one, follows father and son Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), who run a disco walking tour. When Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) takes the walking tour and falls in love with Brayden, it sparks a rivalry between Ronnie and Brayden. Meanwhile, a serial killer dubbed “The Greasy Strangler” stalks the streets at night, and may be somebody close to Brayden.

The actors perform with the nuance and subtlety of an elementary school play, clearly out of intent, but something that Hosking doesn’t always utilize to the most unique outcome. Each person in this film looks like they’ve endured some form of post traumatic stress, their appearance lending themselves to Hosking’s’ attempted heightened reality. Michael St. Michaels is a curious person to watch, as it’s uncertain how much of his performance is Hosking’s direction and how much of it is just how Michaels really is. Elobar comes across as a discount Eric Wareheim, which is maybe an unfair comparison to make, but it’s one the material continuously invites. I was familiar with De Razzo from her superb work on Eastbound & Down, and she continues to be a hilarious force when allowed to be.

Ultimately, Jim Hosking doesn’t have the best sense of the one thing comedy requires, no matter how gruesome he gets with it here – timing. Even though this film doesn’t even run 90 minutes, it feels close to 180. Many jokes and gags go on far too long. They begin funny- consider Ronnie and Brayden repeatedly calling “Bullshit Artist!” on each other when they think the other is lying- but Hosking just runs them into the ground quickly. Hosking seeks to break every taboo he can in the most grotesque and shocking way possible, somehow expecting the shock value of it to carry a zany humor. The shock does knee-jerk a laugh initially, but he keeps returning to the same images over and over to diminishing returns. Hosking is so desperate to provoke any sort of reaction out of you that eventually he provokes no reaction at all.

It’s not the biggest surprise to learn that Elijah Wood and Ben Wheatley produced this, and I admire their intention to foster similar voices of no-fucks-given cinema to theirs. There is something in Hosking that signals value and significance, but it’s so scattered in The Greasy Strangler that it becomes easily lost and forgettable. Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons composes a wonderfully playful score. Revolving around synthesizers and the sounds of coked-up Alvin and the Chipmunks vocals, it captures the gonzo aesthetic goal of the film.

I caught up with a friend afterwards who did in fact walk out, and he remarked that even though he left, weeks from now he would be thinking about certain parts of the film and would just start laughing. I had to agree with him. Even as unpleasant as the whole of the experience was, there were moments that make me crack up even now as I think of them. Chief among them is a sequence where Ronnie and Janet taunt Brayden by chanting “HOOTIE TOOTIE DISCO CUTIE” repeatedly for minutes on end. Why does that make me laugh so hard? Perhaps I’ll never be able to figure it out, but at least it will remain something I can fondly remember the film by.

After the screening during the Q and A, an audience member asked Hosking if he had seen a particular Tim and Eric sketch that so closely resembled much of The Greasy Strangler. Hosking claimed he had not, which can’t be entirely believed. It’s like Quentin Tarantino claiming to have never watched a Seijun Suzuki film. I call bullshit artist.

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