Thursday, August 7, 2008

criminally insane aka crazy fat ethel (yowza!)...

The summer of 1990, right after I turned 13, kinda sucked for me. Things had gotten off to a decent enough start, as in the Spring that year the TV show "Twin Peaks" had debuted and more-or-less ushered me into the world of cult film obsession vis-a-vie the discovery of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and "Eraserhead" (I had already discovered "Dune" as a kid, when it came out in 1984, and become obsessed with it, without really knowing anything about it, or about Lynch, or that pretty much everyone else in the world at that point that it was boring and incomprehensible). Shortly after that I'd kind of discovered music. My cousins gave me a copy of the "Repo Man" soundtrack, with Iggy Pop, Fear, Circle Jerks, Plugz etc., and on my own I'd bought a cassette of the Velvet Underground and Nico. I was on my way to becoming a teenager, and a pretty culturally savvy one at that, not to toot my own funky horn (to be fair, I was in many ways still a total nerd at that point and through most of my teenager years, but kind of a cool nerd, like girls liked me and stuff, at least from like 15 up [not anymore though]. 13 and 14 got pretty rough, though, pretty ugly...)(also, I'm still a nerd)

Things were going pretty alright until my parents shipped me off to a really awful all boys sleepaway camp somewhere in like fucking West Virginia or somewhere, where I was forced to do like sports and shit and co-mingle with kids I had nothing in common with, and hated, and who hated me, too. I had been riding pretty high on the cultural hog up until then, and here I was being forced to sleep in a wooden cabin with a bunch of other boys in their early adolescence, all kinds of festering hormones building up rage and resentment, out in the hot fucking heat all day, playing soccer or some shit. And there were like these fucking hillbilly kids in my "bunk," we just totally didn't click, I was a city kid, it was like some red state-blue state shit (as always, ahead of my time) (I was the blue state). The whole scenario totally sucked. Totally, totally, totally sucked. One bright spot, one of few (the only other two I can think of being archery, which I'd love to take up again someday if I could ever find a place in the city to do it, and getting to shoot a real gun for the only time in my life thus far), was getting care packages from home, which my parents, sensing I was having a miserable time, and I suspect feeling a least a little guilty about it, were reasonably generous with, loading up on such questionably appropriate items as Fangoria magazine, and, finally leading us to the point of all this, a fairly inferior Fangoria/Stalog-hybrid knock-off, Fantazone.

Content-wise, Fantazone was pretty anemic, but amidst short articles on the Batman movie, Alien Nation and the then-latest installments of the Star Trek and Nightmare on Elm Street Franchises (I think both were at part 5 at that point), was a one page piece on the worst-of-the-worst of cult cinema. I have the magazine in my apartment somewhere, and can't find it, of course, now that I need it, but I do recall that among the titles written about were "Blood Freak," the sublime Christian anti-drug film about a man with a Turkey's head gobble-gobbling with way through a hippie killing spree, and "Black Devil Doll From Hell," a shot-on-video production about an African-American ventriloquist's dummy who goes on a killing and raping rampage, and finally, "Criminally Insane," which after all these years I've finally seen and have to say, I totally kind of loved.

"Criminally Insane," from 1975, a 1975 film written and directed by Nick Millard, tells the story of 250-or-so-pound Ethel Janowski (Priscilla Alden), a 30-ish woman remanded to psychiatric care due to "fits of rage." After shock treatment, Ethel is released to the care of her elderly grandmother, who is disgusted by Ethel's weight and the fact that her only interest seems to be in food and eating. After the grandmother locks the household food away to keep Ethel from eating too much, Ethel loses it and stabs her death, hiding the body in the dead woman's bedroom. She's soon also killed a grocery delivery boy whom she is unable to pay.

Not long after, Ethel's seriously skanky sister shows up, using the house as a crash pad while she turns tricks and attempts to avoid her ex, who winds up showing up anyway and moving, acting as the sister's pimp and occasionally smacking her around some. Both seem fairly oblivious to Ethel's homicidal tendencies, even after she wracks up a few more kills. Eventually, though, the smell of the bodies decomposing in the next room becomes apparent, so Ethel knocks off them off too, possibly engaging in necrophilia afterwards with the boyfriend. The bodies continue to pile up, and Ethel finds herself unable to properly dispose of them, until, as a policeman discovers in the film's final disturbing moments, she starts cannibalizing the corpses.

All said, this sounds like a pretty reasonable plotline for a disturbing horror flick, but it really only really hints at the true grunginess of the production, which is what really made the movie for me. This was obviously a very low-budget production, I suspect by none-too-experience filmmakers (the camerawork is barely adequate, adding the the uncomfortable veneer), with non-actors, some of whom seem a little too close to their parts for comfort, in particular the boyfriend/pimp who, when undressed, reveals a number of tattoos at a time way before that was fashionable, and the sister's seemingly only john, a rodent-like 50-ish drunk who seems genuinely to be a skid row drunk. One gets the impression that this was maybe something a bit like a John Waters production, and indeed the film is somewhat similar to his, but either lacking in irony and humor, or so completely ironic and humorous as to be totally brilliant, which is to say this is either an accidental masterpiece or the art film to end all art films.

Then there are the setpieces, particularly the murder of the boyfriend and sister. As Ethel, Alden channels some genuine pathos. She goes after the couple with a cleaver, striking again and again. As she focuses her murderous rage on the sister, the boyfriend, despite an earlier blow to the head, manages to crawl into the hallway. Ethel notices and follows, laughing, and goes to work on him with the cleaver again. In the next scene, she wakes up laughing next to the man's corpse, my assumption being that she's somehow fucked it. It's a genuinely disturbing scene of violence in brutality akin, I'd say, to the horrifying ending of Catherine Breillat's "Fat Girl," or the most amazing barroom massacre of Kathryn Bigelow's "Near Dark." The final revelation of her cannibalizing the corpses is inevitable, but it plays like a sock to the stomach, the perfectly grimy capper to a perfectly grungy film.

As Ethel, Alden gives a pretty disturbing and even kind of brave performance. The character is monomaniaclly obsessed with eating. She has no self-consciousness, no remorse or real emotion, part of the implication being that she was actually driven more insane by the shock treatments she received while under psychiatric care. We get occasional glimpses into her dreamlife, which are evocative but not especially revealing. In one such sequence, she takes her meatcleaver to a mannequin (which is good, because I for one totally hate mannequins, seriously), which we see in the negative/solarized processing popular among budget minded special-effects makers of the 1960s and 70s. Her only real moments of revealing humanity are when she supposedly gets it on with the dead guy's corpse, revealing, I suppose, she has sexual desires as well as culinary ones, and a scene soon after the killings in which she parades around in a bright red dress with jewelry and makeup, the only time in the movie we really see her showing any kind of vanity or consciousness about her appearance one way or the other.

So, yeah, "Criminally Insane" is a real gutter film, as much as something like "Last House on Dead End Street" (which I also liked), but different, unique unto itself, its' own particular brand of griminess. And for that, I totally loved it. Seriously, based on the fairly low recommendation given to 13-year-old me by that crappy magazine I never really considered watching this for the longest time, and when I first I thought I was seeing it, it was actually "Mountaintop Motel Massacre," a 1980s slasher pic about an older female killer than I had gotten mixed up with this one in my mind (it's not that bad either). So last week I finally got to the real deal, and I suppose it came at exactly, really just exactly the right time for me to appreciate it the most. This is low budget, not just poverty row, but really gutter filmmaking with soul and no heart. Absolute aces! And, to top it off, there's a sequel, shot on home video 12 or so years later, with Alden reprising her role as Ethel. It's included on the DVD I watched but I had a hard time getting into it, in part because of muddy sound, and in part because of poorly incorporated clips from the earlier film very haphazardly interspersed throughout. Whatever, it's still pretty rad that more than a decade later Millard and Alden reunited to make a new film, and anyway, the original is still tops, so check it out...if you dare!

More to come soon, but will it be soon enough? Only time will tell...

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