Criminally Insane

Dir: Nick Millard, 1975. Starring: Priscilla Alden, Jane Lambert. Cult.
Criminally Insane
A special kind of applause should be granted to any actor/actress who can take on a role that in some form or another mocks their features, or worse, feeds into the stigmas they get from other people. For example, Camryn Manheim's performance in Happiness where she calls herself “fat” and “ugly” while slurping down ice cream, or Paul Reubens playing the ghost of a pervert in Todd Solondz's most recent film Life During Wartime. Criminally Insane marks the beginning of the short but interesting low-budget career for actress Priscilla Alden. The tagline of the film is “250 pounds of maniacal terror,” and Alden breathes life into the phrase with her pathetic, brutal, and sometimes comic portrayal of Ethel Janowski, also known as “Crazy Fat Ethel.”

Janowski is an obese mental patient with whom you sympathize at first. The film opens with her shock therapy sessions, followed by her glaring at the camera while dressed in a straitjacket. We are then introduced to her grandmother (Jane Lambert), who speaks with her doctors about her progress and the possibility of taking her home. Ethel is released from the asylum and returns to a quiet San Francisco neighborhood with her grandmother. Once settled she dives into a bout of anti-Semitic slurs against her doctor, whom she claims was trying to starve her to death. Simultaneously she begins to stuff her face with a hearty breakfast: a dozen fried eggs, a whole slab of bacon, half a loaf of toasted bread, and milk. The scene is unnerving for two reasons: (1) watching Ethel in a close-up stuffing her face is uncomfortable and purposefully repulsive, and (2) you get the feeling that someone with that kind of insatiable appetite has more in common with a predatory beast than a human being with logical thoughts. There's also discomfort in the dialogue from the grandmother who is passively bullying her while she's eating—reciting the ol' “never too late to watch your figure” line.

It doesn't take long for grandma, who lives on government welfare, to understand that Ethel will eat her out of house and home. Without warning, she empties the fridge and locks all the cabinets. During the night, Ethel's bedside stash of vanilla wafers runs out so she goes to the kitchen. Outside there's a roll of thunder as she quizzically surveys the now-empty fridge and the locked cabinets. For a moment you think she's sleepwalking or in a nightmare, until granny enters the frame and tells Ethel that there will be no fresh meat or milk until she learns to curb her appetite. She tells Ethel that they'll eat three square meals a day, and displays the lock for the cabinets on a chain swinging from her neck. It takes seconds for Ethel to grow angry, but grandma leaves and won't hear any protests. After shouting, “I want that key!” to no avail, she grabs a knife and follows her into the sitting room. Without missing a beat, she stabs granny to death, takes the key, and replenishes her wafer supply.

The first murder happens so quickly that you're a little taken aback. The audience isn't sure if Ethel is dreaming the events or if they're actually happening. Assuming we're supposed to follow it as if it is happening, you don't understand what’s supposed to happen next. That's when the movie suddenly becomes a slasher flick. And what do all slasher films and early horror films have in common? They all feature a boogeyman or serial killer who has some sort of base—grounds in which that can privately hack up unsuspecting victims. We've seen it in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the  Thirteenth, Nightmare on Elm St., Sleepaway Camp...the list goes on. However, you've never seen a food addict, who's a woman, put in the position of the killer.

With grandma out of the way Ethel intends on living it up. She tosses her body in a room and locks the door from the outside. She calls the people who deliver her groceries and doubles the order, promising to pay their excessive and overdue bill from the previous week. When she can't cough up the money to pay the delivery boy and he threatens to leave with the food, he is introduced to Ethel's trusty meat cleaver. Shortly after, Rosalie, Ethel's cousin, decides to shack up at grandma's house in light of her unstable situation. Ethel claims that grandma left town on family matters, and Rosalie tells Ethel that she will be having a lot of “male visitors.” For a while, her cousin's johns aren't any worry, but the arrival of her abusive boyfriend/pimp brings on a huge threat. Not only is Ethel met with insult and ridicule from Rosalie's beau, but she also has to mask the smell of rotting bodies coming from grandma's bedroom. When the two threaten to break down the door to get rid of the smell, Ethel decides to bring out the meat cleaver one last time.

The ending was similar to the ending in Sleepaway Camp—shocking, unexpected, and gross. There was a sequel, which I hear is nowhere near as good. Criminally Insane is one of those films that don’t really need an explanation. Either you get the dark humor, or you don't. You aren't supposed to be frightened of Ethel, but rather take on her self-abuse and the onslaught of disrespect from others until you practically dismiss her rampage. Many don't like the film because it's extremely low budget, but Millard plays with his resources quite well. There is an awesome correlation between food and sex used throughout the film, and a eerie surrealist montage towards the end that signifies Ethel's liberation—one could even construe the sequence to mean a sexual liberation, but I won't explain why because that would ruin the ending.

Alden's performance is what holds up the entire film, but Lambert's short role as the grandmother, as well as all the other supporting roles, offered plenty for her to bounce off of. The soundtrack was psychedelic and tense, and the drive-in horror aspect to it was really enjoyable. You simply won't see another film like it or an actress with the ability to make you sympathetic towards a lunatic.

Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Oct 5, 2011 6:03pm
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