What's scarier than an escaped mental patient with an axe to grind...and wield? What's more unnerving than a psycho with a straight razor? What's more menacing than a monster sent up from the bowels of Hell, ready to do its redolent master's macabre bidding? How about a fat chick! That's right, is an obese babe with an unhealthy appetite for oversized portions, and a supersized slaughter sensibility more unnerving than a walking corpse or a shape-shifting lycanthrope? Wouldn't you rather meet Dracula, the Undertaker and all his pals and various members of the Munsters in a dark, dank alley rather than have to put up with a homicidal heifer that can't get enough cake - or carnage? Let's face it, a beached whale woman is a lot more terrifying than an entire army of skeleton soldiers, and ghosts, ghouls and goblins can't hold evil talisman to a chunky chick with a chip on her shoulder.
Perhaps the greatest - and as far as this critic knows, only - corpulent killer with decidedly feminine facets is Ethel Janowski, star of writer/director Nick Millard's 1975 schlock classic Criminally Insane - as well as its less successful 1987 sequel, Criminally Insane 2. This engorged gal with a glandular condition is so hopped up on hotcakes that she will do anything to appease her need for nourishment. Nothing stands in the way of Ethel and her plentiful portions - not a slutty sister, sis's surfer boy pimp, a nosy doctor or a rather dim detective. Lack of food does one thing to this tanker truck of lard. Block her baked goods, and Ethel becomes a raging bloodthirsty maniac who wields a mean meat cleaver. But the story of a gluttonous gal with gore on her mind was not Millard's only message of menace. In Satan's Black Wedding, also from '75, he proved that even the most simple of suicides can hide a horrible, hideous truth.
Over the last four decades, writer/director Nick Millard (known by such other nom de plumes as Nick Philips, Jan Anders, Phillip Miller and Homer J Fong - just kidding about the last one) has crafted one of the most offbeat and unusual oeuvres in outsider cinema. From the Uschi Digart softcore romp Pleasures of a Woman (1974) to a recent retelling of Henry James The Turn of the Screw (2003) he has dabbled in both grindhouse and legitimate moviemaking fare.
Thanks to Retro Shock-O-Rama, a subdivision of ei Independent Cinema Studios, we are treated to three of his most notorious entities - the infamous Criminally Insane, its flawed follow-up Criminally Insane 2, and a real lost gem, Satan's Black Wedding. Discussed individually, we come to learn why Millard has such a staunch cult following, and why his films are some of the seediest in all of cinema.
Criminally Insane (1975) Score: ****1/2
When Fat Ethel goes cuckoo-cuckoo (obviously over some Cocoa Puffs, judging by her gargantuan size), she is sent to a loony bin where electro shock treatments become the psychological equivalent of the rice diet. When she's finally released to her grandmother's care, the doctor gives this dire warning. Ethel must do something about her heft. It's not good for her heart. Well, granny takes the shrink at his word, because once she's home, Ethel goes on an immediate eating spree (1 lb. of bacon, a dozen eggs, a loaf of toast). The old gal has no choice but to lock up the larder, Dominic DiNapoli style.
Ethel gets the lo-cal jitters and demands the cupboard keys. When grandma says "nyet", she gets a butcher knife in the back for her health concerns. As the old coots corpse rots away in a back bedroom, Ethel's sister, the slut for hire Rosalie, shows up, looking for a place to ply her trade. Little does she know that her sibling has killed - and will kill again, if her humongous appetites are not met.
Oh Lord, you've GOT to love Criminally Insane. This unfettered freak show of a fright flick, starring the world's portliest serial killer (yes, even bigger than John Wayne Gacy and Leatherface, combined) is so downright depraved, so tantalizing in its turgid storytelling and squalid scenarios that words cannot begin to describe its baneful beauty. As our lead, Priscilla Alden gives new meaning to the word hunger pangs as Fat Ethel Janowski proves that, unless you get your stomach stapled, or have one of those weight reducing pouches formed out of your internal organs, the need for grub will get you in nothing but trouble.
Let's face it, Ethel is a pig, a walking ham hock, the kind of obese butterball that make the waitresses in Polish restaurants look like Kate friggin Moss. Her intake of calories is matched only by her ability to wear each and everyone on of her ounces on her chin flaps. Whether it's diving into a side of bacon, or laying into a succulent piece of chocolate cake, Ethel loves her vittles - and messing with her mess is mistake numero uno. Of course, the entire movie revolves around Ethel's feasting, and the violent spree she aspires to whenever the pantry starts running low.
This is the type of movie the 70s are famous for, off the wall experiments in execution and excess. Imagine Kathy Bates blown up like a balloon and running around brandishing a butcher's knife and you start to get the idea of how stellar this fright flick really is. The terror is kept to a minimum, and the storyline is just an excuse to see Ethel eat and kill, but when it's as bloody and bold as this film, who really cares. Alden is just amazing, providing one of the most unflattering portraits of stout sisterhood ever attempted onscreen. Ethel is not just fat, she's voluminous. Her legs are the size of small boys, and her face is flush with untold grams of excess flub. She's a walking pork butt, a stuffed and rolled flank steak just waiting for a fire to be lit under her. Unfortunately, when you spark this tub of goo, a garroting is what you'll get.
Writer/director Nick Millard (here credited as "Nick Phillips") is so skillful in his seediness, so maladjusted in his moviemaking that we occasionally feel as if we are watching outtakes from a snuff film documentary. The casting compliments the sleazoid nature of the narrative, down to the drunken idiot who lusts after hooker Rosalie's loins, and the killings are quite graphic for a mid-70s slasher. Aside from an ending that's a tad too rapid in its resolution, and a dream sequence that just screams of one too many pre-production peyote buttons, this is a great little grindhouse classic. You will definitely cheer on our chunky heroine as she rids the planet of sickening slimeballs - and sides of beef - one swing of the meat cleaver at a time.
Criminally Insane 2 (1987) Score: **
Fat Ethel is back - and she's got the additional tags of 'crazy homicidal spree killer' attached to her already less than flattering moniker as well. When budget cuts force the asylum where she's stationed to move her out, Mrs. Bartholomew's halfway house is the unlucky recipient of this behemoth body butcher. At first, Ethel tries to fit in. She eats her broth like a good little girl and ignores the other residents, including a guy who thinks he's a fly (or maybe he just enjoys snacking on them). Soon those familiar spasms of famine hit our hefty honey, and she longs to lunch on the group's comestibles. But people start getting in Ethel's way, including a fey orderly and a sinister patient with his own precarious past. Ethel, as we now know, is a murdering pro, and it's not long before hangings, stabbings and attempted poisonings occur. All Ethel wants is a decent meal, and no one is going to stand in her way...NO ONE!
How does one make a sequel to a certified cult classic with little money and even less blood? Why, simply incorporate as much footage as you can from the original film and call it a flashback. That's what Nick (Philips) Millard has done in creating a continuation of the Fat Ethel and her lethal love of food saga known as Criminally Insane 2. Lucky enough to get a slightly smaller Priscilla Alden back (as well as, it appears, some of the original costumes) and working within a camcorder ideal this time, Millard seems convinced that seeing Ethel back up on the screen - along with copious amounts of material from the first film - will be enough to keep fans happy. He's half right. Seeing Alden again is fun, since she inhabits Ethel with an ease and a style that's a jaundiced joy to behold. Too bad she's not given more to do except look sad and have night terrors.
Indeed, if you feel cheated that most of the best bloodletting comes directly from scenes you've already seen before, then Criminally Insane 2 will be a major disappointment. There is one inventive death (Ethel stabs a man with practically every sharp implement in a knife drawer) and some interesting aspects (our "human fly" is a real method ham here). But the dour, dreary magic of the first movie, with its green-faced corpses rotting away in a spare room and Ethel's intense eating jags, is all but absent here. This has the feeling of a crass cash in, a "let's make a direct to video variation of a previous success" mentality to earn a few bucks in rental fees. We have none of the memorable miscreance of Ethel's sister Rosalie, her icky "dates" and her slimeball pimp John. Indeed, Ethel's past seems wiped away with a single swipe of a bureaucrat's pen. While there is some enjoyment to be had in revisiting a favorite fiend, Criminally Insane 2 is nothing more than a novelty. It can't hold a moldering corpse to its predecessor.
Satan's Black Wedding (1975) Score: ***1/2
When famous actor Mark learns of his sister's suicide, he travels up the coast to Monterey to take care of the burial plans. There he learns the mystery surrounding her death. While she left a note, the police think it was homicide, and a former lover of Mark's - and best friend to his sister - thinks it might have something to do with a spooky old church his sibling liked to visit. Seems she met a weirdo priest up there while researching a book, and came back with stories of Satanic rituals and human sacrifice. When Mark investigates, he learns something very odd. The church was once the scene of a sacrilegious mass where the Devil himself appeared - and Mark and his sister may have something to do with the Fallen One's plans. It is up to the actor to learn the truth or be condemned forever to take part in Satan's Black Wedding.
Far more serious than Criminally Insane, and a lot more atmospheric too, Satan's Black Wedding is Nick Millard's attempt at creating a good old fashioned gothic nightmare, and he more or less succeeds. Building his story slowly, never letting on with too much information too soon, what we end up with here is a decent little devil cult mystery wrapped up inside some inventive vampire capering. Indeed, some of the best scenes in the movie involve Mark's sister rising from the dead, mouth filled with jagged, gore-splattered teeth, to hunt down members of her family for sacrifice. One scene in particular, where an aunt and her maidservant are slaughtered, is handled with a nice amount of shock and suspense.
In addition, Millard doesn't go overboard with the Devil drivel. He keeps things centered in a kind of crazy, insular reality which seems perfect for the ethereal setting of the Northern California coastline. As with Criminally Insane, he is working with a cast that is completely in sync with his sensibilities. They never attempt to camp or kitsch up the narrative, and maintain a stern gravitas even when some pretty bizarre stuff starts to unfold. While our perverted priest looks more like Freddy Fender's incensed stepbrother (what is with that salt and pepper hair helmet, dude?), he is quite believable as Satan's earthbound emissary. Together with a nice bit of location ambience, and some interesting camerawork, we get a solid sampling of dread.
Sadly, the one thing about this movie that just doesn't work - and you know for a fact that Millard thought it was smashing - is the love story between Mark and his ex-girlfriend. There are lots of pointless scenes with the lovebirds making kooky cow eyes at each other, and the sex scenes (not much is shown, thank GOD!) are dark and dull. The actress playing the paramour from the past is a pie-faced prop who's about as sexy as a bee sting, and her acting rates just below golf cart on the emoting scale. What he sees in the slag has got to be scripted, because no amount of disbelief suspension can make us consider that their passion could happen for real. Since this cracked connubial bliss takes up a fair portion of our plot, you have to tolerate lots of lovin' to get to the good stuff.
Luckily, Millard delivers. The ending, while dopey, does its job, creeping us out while keeping us guessing as to what will happen next. And while the plausibility of Satan's plan is questionable (he's not the most forward thinking of fiends, apparently) we can accept its paranormal parameters. Indeed, Satan's Black Wedding is like a far more serious version of Andy Milligan's The Body Beneath. Both films do an excellent job of substituting atmosphere and mood for otherwise low budget logistics. Thankfully, Millard forgot to flesh out his cast with hippies doing the bodkin boogie ad nauseum.
Overall, Millard's movies are mesmerizing. Whether it's watching Ethel pound a broken bottle into a delivery boy's chest, or a vampire Satanist sinking her teeth into a victim, there is a real visceral quality to his horror that makes for some unsettling, very memorable macabre. Certainly the scares here have been greatly diminished over time, and we've seen much worse from our modern horror offerings, but Millard has something those contemporary creepshows don't have - imagination. With limited funds comes improvising and ingenuity. Filmmakers do with what they have, and try to find ways out of sticky scare situations. Sometimes they fail. Other times they thrive beyond anyone's expectations. Criminally Insane and Satan's Black Wedding are examples of no-budget cinema gone right. Fat Ethel's sloppy sequel, on the other hand, is an illustration of how the lack of money can destroy even the most potent legacy.
Offered by ei Independent Cinema Studios and its Retro Shock-O-Rama subsidiary, Criminally Insane and Satan's Black Wedding definitely look their age. Both 1.33:1 film prints are mired in faded colors, dirt and scratches, and occasional editing defects. Satan's Black Wedding has had so much digital tinkering done to it that the finale is solarized with the blacks "shimmering" within each shot. Criminally Insane 2 was shot on video, but it's also a full frame fiasco. Far too bright, and almost colorless in its conception, this camcorder catastrophe is hard to watch at times. While no one was expecting pristine preservation from an outsider company like this, being able to enjoy the image is part of a film's fun. You'll have a hard time gaining any amusement out of these washed out wonders.
Where bad images exist, poor sound is bound to follow, and such is the case here. Everything is Dolby Digital Mono of the most ear splitting and tinny tenets. Criminally Insane sounds the best, but there is still a great deal of echo and shrillness in the mix. Dialogue becomes difficult to hear and other foley - like the thump of a meat cleaver - is overmodulated and oppressive. Satan's Black Wedding is mixed so low that, in several scenes, the conversations are almost indecipherable. Criminally Insane 2 suffers from stunted sonic issues as well. The actors can barely be heard over all the background fuzz and white noise.
The one place where this package attempts to excel is in the bonus features department. Shock-O-Rama has tried its best to give these titles a nice collection of added content, and for the most part, they have. We are treated to two interviews with Millard - one solo and one with Fat Ethel herself, Priscilla Alden (they are joined by Millard's producing partner - and real life wife - Frances). Both conversations are pleasant, genial affairs with lots of praise to go around for all involved. Priscilla seems the most even tempered, taking it all in stride, while Millard still seems mad that his movie didn't get more recognition.
In addition to these fine Q&As, we are also treated to two full length audio commentaries (for Criminally Insane and Satan's Black Wedding) by the two Milliards and some character called 42nd Street Pete. While it would be nice to say that these alternate narrative tracks provide new insight into each film, the truth is far more telling. Sparse, with long stretches where nothing is said, there are more jokes offered here than data about the production. Milliard tries his best to remember, but has a hard time with even the basic info, while Pete swings wildly at scene after scene with attempted MST3K style quips. Instead of helping the films, their comments hinder you're enjoyment. Include a few trailers and you've got a good but flawed DVD offering that may make true fans more than a bit angry.
Watching the three films on this disc is like walking into a time machine and setting the dial on "deranged". Milliard's movies speak their own odd language, and exist in their own unique universe were concepts like logic and logistical rationale mean close to nothing. His narratives are straightforward and striking, mixing necessary action with long passages of perplexing passivity. One moment Ethel is eating a piece of cake - the next, she is beating a doctor to death with a fire iron. Mark explores an evil cathedral, but never makes the clear connection between his sister's death and the Devil worshipping vampires in residence there until it is far too late. Dream sequences appear out of nowhere and character motivation is peculiar at best. Yet somehow, his movies manage to unsettle and shock, to fill you with dread and hit you with horror. Sure they're wacky and weird, but they also appear sheltered in their own rotting realm, a seedy spot filled with untold miseries and maladies. As triple features go, this one is a definite double header hit. A second visit with Fat Ethel just doesn't cut the mustard, and when considering all things Janowski, food is of paramount concern. So, feel free to dig into this pile of perversity. You'll be glad you did.
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