The Greasy Strangler (2016)
Written by Toby Harvard and Jim Hosking
Directed by Jim Hosking
What makes a film successful? The most common metric we use to measure success would be box office returns. However, there are plenty of movies that we consider works of art that were not tremendously financially successful. It doesn’t matter because we value them for artistic merits rather than economic ones. So, where do you place a movie like The Greasy Strangler? I had to give it five stars on Letterboxd because it does accomplish what the director set out to do. From that perspective, it unsettles and provokes shocked laughter, precisely what Jim Hosking is going for. Your specific taste in art may not mesh with Hosking’s, it likely will not, but you can’t say his film failed to deliver on his goals in the making.
Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) is a monstrous old man who claims to have partied with the stars of the disco era. He runs a disco-themed walking tour with his adult son Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), who wants to become a fantasy-science fiction writer. Ronnie is obsessed with eating overly greasy food, which is an undeniable hint of what the man gets up to at night. When the sun goes down, Ronnie coats himself in a thick layer of grease and wanders the town killing people. They meet Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) on one tour, and Brayden begins a romantic relationship with her. Ronnie becomes extremely jealous and does everything he can to come between them, but it becomes much more difficult when Brayden suspects his father is the infamous Greasy Strangler in the news.
Jim Hosking took the post-millennium anti-comedy foundation established by creators like Tim & Eric and warped and twisted it into his own thing. His world is populated with many non-actors who are given long monologues to deliver and clearly little acting experience. Some might see this as a detriment, but it’s a strength in my book. In the same directors like Bresson or Zhao use non-actors to elicit a particular effect, so too does Hosking. The artifice of his performers matches the Goodwill aesthetic of his costuming and production design. To watch a Hosking film or television series (in the case of Tropical Cop Tales) is to be transported to a nightmare world where the social norms of our own don’t exist. Characters often rant and rave, having wild mood swings on a dime.
The humor of The Greasy Strangler is set firmly in the realm of the profane. Nudity is frequent and never presented in a way to arouse the viewer. The camera is more interested in the grotesque nature of human bodies. Some characters use the foulest language, going on cursing tirades or dropping profanities in the middle of casual conversation. The film’s intent is to provoke the audience, to test how much we are willing to take of obscenity and vulgarity. If you don’t know what you are in for or don’t watch many films, then The Greasy Strangler will hit pretty fucking hard.
We live in an era where we feel so little when watching most cineplex movies. Hollywood has crafted a very pleasant formula that neither offends nor evokes genuine awe. Films follow structures, and we leave the theater with our memories of the experience quickly turning into nothing. That will never happen if you watch a Hosking movie. This is going to stay with you. To watch this movie and be passive in any way is impossible. You’re either going to laugh out of shock or be grossed entirely out to the point of nausea. You might be annoyed and angry with the film, but that is an actual emotion instead of watching as an apathetic, passive viewer.
In some ways, his work is a commentary on what Americans (and Brits as he is one) look like if we were able to go outside of ourselves. We’re disgusting, raging monsters. We slap suits and makeup on ourselves, but it can’t really hide the rotten core at the center of everything. Western civilization is anything but civilized. We’re a collection of unspoken social contracts barely hanging on by a thread. When that last string snaps, it will be impossible not to see the nightmare of everything we have done and are doing. Hosking’s films merely give us a preview, a look under the hood of what is and why we should fear ourselves.