I Watched It So You Don't Have To: The Greasy Strangler (2016)
Very rarely in my movie-watching experience do I ever have to ask myself, “what the hell am I watching?” Often times I have to ask, “why the hell am I watching this?” But even if it’s something unbelievably grotesque, dated, or disturbing, I know what it is. I could explain it if someone was to walk up and manage to ask in a horror-shocked voice “what is this?!” If their follow-up question was any form of “why?!” then my explanation might not come as easily–the “why” is regularly elusive; the “what” is always within grasp.
But then I watched The Greasy Strangler (2016). Now, I’m not sure of anything anymore.
I suppose I can explain enough of this movie to give a synopsis but that wouldn’t really do it justice. At its heart, The Greasy Strangler is about arrested development, familial relations, and not coming to terms with your shortcomings. But it also features a naked, greased-up elderly man who strangles people until their eyes literally shoot out of their heads, then he eats said eyes before going to a carwash to have the grease scrubbed off him–so what the hell do I know?
Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels), the strangler, and his poor, put upon middle-aged son Big Brayden (Sky Elobar) live together in a dilapidated house in LA. They work together as disco history tour guides where Ronnie makes up completely untrue stories and gets into fights with the tourists who were duped into paying for them. When Brayden falls in love with a woman on the tour, Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo), Ronnie becomes increasingly jealous and uncomfortably weird. Like, he knocks on the bathroom door when Janet’s in there to ask if he can see her pee, and when she says no, he responds with “yeah, well, I got teeth to brush,” and comes in anyway. That kind of uncomfortably weird.
Before I get into the breakdown of this film, let me say one thing: I loved this freakshow of a movie. I laughed (in a variety of manners) at a whole lot; whether it was tourists discussing what potato chips are made out of, or Janet and Ronnie repeating “hootie tootie disco cutie!” at the top of their lungs after he manages to seduce her. There’s so much weirdness here that it almost seems arbitrary, but then it manages to make complete sense once you get to the end. I’m not saying that the credits roll and you’re like “100% clear, no questions from me,” but it reaches its own unique (let’s go with that) cohesion. Ronnie and Brayden are two sad characters that have spent too much time with each other. Even in a world where everyone seems weird, they are truly the weirdest.
The grossest parts of this movie revolve around grease. Ronnie demands Brayden cook for him and is always chiding him for not including enough oil in his food. We see him submerge everything from a chili dog to himself in a vat of grease–the visuals of him lumbering lubricated and naked through the LA night are truly the crown jewel of the film. He looks terrifying at first, then hysterical, then right back to terrifying as he approaches the many people he believes have wronged him to choke the life out of their bodies.
Gross-out movies can often run the joke into the ground. Some of them go for the kitchen sink tactic, which ensures that every last disgusting thing will be thrown in. Others stay in the realm of the grotesque and feature as much viscera as they can muster up. The Greasy Strangler is surprisingly restrained, so its gross-out moments hit hard and accurately. It’s more cringe-inducing than vomit-inducing, but plenty of moments make you bust out laughing while fighting the urge to look away.
All the characters talk like cut scenes from Napoleon Dynamite, with awkward sincerity and openness. Ronnie and Brayden spend a good chunk of the movie screaming “bullshit artist” at each other when they’re angry, and both confess when they’re falling in love with Janet. Putting it that way makes it sound sweet, but trust that it’s not. The dynamics between the three are hard to pin down, as Janet alternates who she’s attracted to and who she’s repulsed by.
In the end, Ronnie snatches Janet away while an enraged Brayden dunks himself in his father’s grease tub and takes chase. He catches up to them in a movie theater where Ronnie is in the process of choking her. We think Brayden is here to save the day but then he joins in, throttling her until her eyes pop out. Ronnie grabs them to share together while watching the movie.
Oh no, it’s not over yet.
The last scene of this film is Ronnie and Brayden freshly scrubbed from the carwash walking along a boardwalk and talking about their lives. Ronnie, he of the tall tales, goes on about how he could have had this big business opportunity with John Travolta in New Orleans but he gave it up to be a father. The two speak about disappointment, happiness, and being let down. They trash Janet in what sounds like the locker room talk of the dumbest teen boys imaginable, and find a strange harmony as father and son.
Part of me is upset that I didn’t see this movie prior to writing my piece about the oddity of the family unit, but this movie deserves its own spotlight. This is John Waters through the mumblecore lens; this is an embrace of weirdness but finding a coherence within that structure. So many of the characters, costumes, and locations look just left of normal. Aside from that, it’s a lovingly made film with an eye on replicating the magic of B horror movies. A scene where Ronnie argues with a man running a hot dog cart is the epitome of low budget perfection. The man’s stilted way of speaking sounds like so many awkward line reads from so many struggling actors; it’s a small but clear nod to the origins of this work.
Now, the last question that has to get answered aside from the “what” and the “why” of this movie is would I recommend it? Heartily and enthusiastically so. I’d recommend it to everyone I know. Then I would trust that anyone who knew me would think to do their own research on something I mentioned, not blindly jump in and hope for the best. Unlike some of the other films in our I Watched It So You Don’t Have To series, I don’t feel the need to lay out a disclaimer prior to viewing–the truth is that you’ll know if you’re going to enjoy this movie or not before anything gross happens. Many, many people will not. They probably won’t get past the first few uncomfortable scenes. And that’s fine. More greasy old dudes for me.
If you are willing to give this film a shot, remember that “what the hell am I watching?” can never be answered, and this is where the true magic of The Greasy Strangler sits.