Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler is the latest in a long line of wannabe provocations that aim for John Waters-style transgression without evincing half of Waters’s wit and affection for eccentric lifestyles. The film mostly smacks of desperation: the performers are directed in a stilted way to suggest “bad” acting; some of the supposedly clever one-liners are repeated ad nauseam long after they’ve ceased to be funny; and the visual effects are made to look as amateurish as possible. Fusing such a self-consciously arch style with the film’s abundance of gore, lard, nudity, and bodily functions, The Greasy Strangler begins to feel like little more than a dare—as if Hosking were challenging us to see how long we’re willing to stick with his unpleasant characters, crude jokes, and cheesy violence before we decide do check out.
What makes The Greasy Strangler even more unfortunate is that there are hints of the incisive character study that—in its own skewed way—could have been. Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) may have unnatural obsessions with both grease and disco, and his son, Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), may be a middle-aged case of arrested development. Look past the surface grotesqueries, however, and Hosking is essentially telling a family story: that of a faithful son who desires to break free from the control of an overbearing father who can’t bear to let him go. There’s a genuine childlike innocence to Brayden’s manner that contrasts sharply with Ronnie’s domineering insanity.
It aims for John Waters-style transgression without evincing half of Waters’s wit and affection for eccentric lifestyles.
When Brayden meets Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) on one of the fake disco walking tours he hosts with his father and believes he’s fallen in love for the first time in his life, Ronnie, finding his home life threatened by this woman, actively tries to sabotage his son’s happiness, including seducing Janet away from him. Also important is the fact that Ronnie is the Greasy Strangler of the film’s title—basically a guy who covers himself in grease and runs around town killing, and in cartoonish ways, anyone who annoys him. Hosking and co-screenwriter Toby Harvard reveal this within the film’s first 15 minutes, thus placing the focus of the rest of the film on the sexual and psychological war that develops between Ronnie and Brayden.
Where John Waters regularly found redeeming humanity in his freaks, Hosking sees his characters merely as puppets for his strenuously wacky “vision.” In this, Hosking’s sensibility lines up less with Waters’s than with that of Jared Hess, another filmmaker who frequently invites us to laugh at his human oddities even as he tries to pass his derision off as fascination with outsiders.
Perhaps The Greasy Strangler’s most telling failure lies in its misogynistic treatment of Janet, its one major female character. Though at first she’s charmed by Brayden’s earnestness, midway through she gravitates toward Ronnie’s predatory ways with a callousness that comes out of nowhere. Outside of one scene in which she claims she feels “confused” in the wake of a recent breakup, Janet comes off as little more than a handy plot device that exists simply for the sake of Ronnie and Brayden’s tug of war.
It’s a failure that speaks to Hosking’s willingness to trash even coherent characterizations for the sake of his brand of self-satisfied eccentricity. When Brayden accuses her father of treating her as little more than a sex object, one may feel inclined to label Hosking’s hypocritical film with the same epithet Ronnie and Brayden frequently lodge at each other: “bullshit artist.”