January 30, 2011
Cinematic Hell: Criminally Insane (1975)
Stars: Priscilla Alden and Michael Flood
Buy Criminally Insane on DVD
Perhaps it was inevitable that Nick Millard would find a career in exploitation film. His father, S S 'Steamship' Millard, was a genre pioneer, one of the legendary Forty Thieves of the exploitation roadshow circuit with larger than life characters like Louis Sonney, Leonard 'Pug' Arenson and Howard 'Pappy' Goldin. Best remembered is Dwain Esper, who directed Maniac and Marihuana and toured Freaks and Reefer Madness, but they all operated the same way. The Forty Thieves would breeze into town on a wave of publicity, like carnival barkers or revivalist preachers; lease a theatre to exhibit their latest atrocities; hawk pamphlets that made more money than tickets; then quickly breeze on out again before the authorities paid too much attention. Millard built films like 1927's Is Your Daughter Safe? from existing footage, its warning against prostitution conjured up from medical footage about venereal disease and stock footage of white slavery.
Steamship's son, Nick Millard, born in 1941, earned his first credit as Don Rolos, directing Nudes on Credit in 1961 for a 1963 release. He'd previously worked with his father on a documentary about shooting John Huston's The Misfits. IMDb lists no less than nineteen pseudonyms that he used on a prolific output of soft porn movies, mostly as a director but occasionally as a writer, producer or cinematographer. Titles ranged from simple (Kept, The Slut or Threes) to descriptive (Confessions of a Dirty Pair, Darling, Are You Bored with Men? or How I Got My Mink). After forty such films in a decade, he switched genre abruptly in 1973, writing and directing two legendary underground horror pictures, Satan's Black Wedding and Criminally Insane, as Nick Philips. His father helped out on a number of his early erotic films; his mother, Frances Millard, didn't get involved until this point, but then acted as producer on many of his ensuing horror movies.
Criminally Insane is a movie out of time, because instead of wallowing in the excesses of 1975, as you might expect for an experienced sexploitation filmmaker, it hearkens back a dozen years to the original American gore film, Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast. Lewis explained how Blood Feast was problematic for local authorities because it didn't break any rules, at least that existed at the time: it contained no nudity or swearing and the bad guy got his comeuppance at the end. There simply weren't rules against the sort of gratuitious gore that accompanied tongue ripping or eyeball skewering. Criminally Insane is a reversion to that ethos, because it seems to lack all the usual exploitation elements except gore, only to add a level of bad taste that's hard to ignore. While there's almost no swearing, the film is full of bad language. It's blatant, crass, lowest common denominator, all the more so because everything is shown as utterly routine.
Millard described his change from soft porn to horror as 'a step up from the gutter to the kerb' and it's easy to see why this film in particular is such a cult classic for gorehounds. A good part of the appeal is the introduction of Priscilla Alden as a lead actress, because she's utterly unlike any horror lead you've ever seen. While you might credit Millard with some flavour of feminism for creating what is likely to be the first slasher movie with a female slasher, you'd only do so if you haven't seen Alden. She plays Ethel Janowski, usually referred to as Crazy Fat Ethel, also the title of the film when released to home video. 'She's 250 Pounds of Maniacal Fury!' the film's tag line suggests, which underestimates her size considerably. She alternates between food scenes and murder scenes, though the continual eating was apparently tough on Alden, in reality a dainty eater. There's no fat suit in play, so presumably she had a glandular condition.
Obviously you wouldn't expect a character called Crazy Fat Ethel to be particularly subtle, but Alden, apparently a classically trained actor, underplays everything. There's rarely even a hint of 'maniacal fury' as she almost sleepwalks through the film. Early on, she's restrained in bed and sedated by men in white coats, then taken to the psych ward at San Francisco General Hospital where she sits in a straightjacket and doesn't move. The electric shock therapy prompts Alden's most active acting, but that goes back to stoic when released into her grandmother's custody. Why did any of this happen? The suggestion is that Ethel simply had rages so Mrs Janowski sent her away to get a 'lovely rest', but that and her drawing the blinds to shut out the world is the entire background, providing a subtext that must surely count as the most horrific part of the story. The rest is just Ethel the walking stomach eating and killing her way to the end credits.
On the DVD commentary track, 42nd St Pete suggests that Ethel reminds him of that one nurse everyone hated at school. I can buy that, though I saw her as the stereotypical Teutonic nanny who would scare the crap out of the kids in her care so much that they'd all end up with deviant sexual fetishes. All she needed was a pair of lederhosen and an Austrian accent. For a while, she doesn't speak at all, making us wonder if Alden was hired purely for her size. Certainly she says nothing in the hospital or on the way home, where her first act is to silently cook breakfast: half a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon and half a loaf of toast. It's only when her grandma sits down at the table and attempts small talk that she opens her mouth. 'Did you know they tried to kill me?' she asks in a pleasant voice. 'That goddamn Jew doctor gave them orders not to give me enough to eat.' Her ethos takes up one line: 'My heart's just fine as long as my stomach's not empty.'
To be frank, we're impressed that this human bumper car can wander around as easily as she does. She's seriously obese, but beyond her insane caloric intake, she's apparently able to do anything that the rest of us can do. Dr Gerard wants Ethel to watch her weight, but it doesn't seem to be holding her back any. Interview footage shot with Alden shortly before her death at 68 in 2007 shows that she was still large but healthy and looking better than ever. In the film she ably hides how much physical exercise she had to do, as she was frequently called on to retake arduous scenes where she had to walk up stairs, run towards the camera or drag bodies around. She's the constant focus too, in almost every shot, because other characters only exist as props for her to bounce off, if you pardon the pun, and once their purpose is served, like Mrs Janowski frustrating Ethel's midnight snack runs by emptying the fridge, she kills them.
Two things shine out during this first murder scene. One is that the violence is poorly done, the knives the only effective component while the blood is just garish red paint. Nothing penetrates skin or clothing either, suggesting that it's pretty likely the budget mostly vanished into Ethel's stomach rather than into effects. She never cleans up any blood either but it constantly vanishes as if by magic. Bludgeoning people into bloody pulp apparently only leaves blood on body parts. The other thing worthy of note is Alden's acting before and after each act of violence. She does get riled up before killing her grandma, repeating 'I Want That Key!' like a chanted mantra, each word punctuated by a vicious stab to Mrs Janowski's hand to free the key to the only cupboard that contains any food. Yet once the deed is done, she calms down immediately to a thoroughly restrained outlook as if nothing has happened and she stays there for most of the film.
So up goes Mrs Janowski to the front bedroom, which is a shame because Jane Lambert is surely the best actor in the film. Ethel doesn't show any remorse, any emotion, any anything. Once she locks the door on her dead grandmother, all she can think of doing is calling Caruso's Market to make a regular weekly order, only with four half gallons of ice cream instead of two. You could philosophise that she locks reality away with her grandmother, just as Mrs Janowski had shut out reality when she drew the blinds at the front of the house, but that's probably giving this picture far too much credit. More realistically, this scene just highlights Ethel as a sociopath who should never have been allowed out in public and whose drug of choice is food. In her mind, if you get between her and food then you're an obstacle and obstacles are there to be overcome, just as if she were a heroin addict. Food just means Crazy Fat Ethel can be consistently calm.
This murder introduces two unavoidable problems. One is that the Janowski household now only contains only one live person, so we have to bring in some more to keep the story (and the body count) going. Ethel's sister, Rosalie, is the only one already mentioned so she gets voted back onto the island, even though grandma had kicked her out during Ethel's hospital stay for being a slut. The other is that it also contains one dead person, who Ethel has effectively forgotten about already, so the front bedroom is about to become a rather stinky MacGuffin, one that gets less and less pleasant to even think about. Eventually Ethel does open the window and add a bizarre green air freshener that to me was the most fascinating thing in the movie, but it's far beyond too little too late. The best special effect the picture can boast is the avocado masque the filmmakers used to simulate putrefaction and Ethel's addiction ensures that it's needed often.
The more I think about food being Ethel's drug, the more the insane simplicity of this plot makes sense. Next on the list is the grocery delivery boy who merely wants her to settle an outstanding bill before leaving anything new. 'I don't have $80!' she explains, after raiding her gran's coin collection. 'I only have $4.50!' So that's it for him, for attempting to walk out on an addict with a big grocery bag of calorie filled drugs: no premeditation, no concern for consequences, just a burning need like in Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream. In Ethel's condition, she probably doesn't even see the boy, just the bag, and she has plenty of weight to put behind a bottle. She may not even see Dr Gerard, just a threat to the next day's menu, when he makes the mistake of coming round, forcing his way in and asking why she keeps missing electric shock treatments. If that's optional, would anyone go? He gets taken down brutally with an iron candelabra.
Unfortunately she doesn't take care of Rosalie that quickly. Personally, I have issues with Fight Club because Marla Singer is so close to the antithesis of my ideal woman. Rosalie fits the same bill but Helena Bonham Carter would look better than Lisa Farros after being hit by a truck. From moment one, Rosalie is a real piece of cake. 'Jesus, it's about time!' are her first words, as Ethel opens the door. 'I don't believe it but I think you've gotten even fatter. What did they feed you in that nuthouse?' At least she's as underplayed as Ethel. Everything is depicted as utterly routine, whether it's bitching about her abusive boyfriend, reporting on the 'little brown man' her mother sleeps with or messing around on the couch in front of her sister. She drinks from a half empty beer can a trick leaves her as payment, even after it's been used as an ashtray. Her nightgown is a frilly blue waterfall almost as tacky as anything I've seen in a Chesty Morgan movie.
The most surreal scene in the movie is when Rosalie is in bed with John, the boyfriend she never wants to see again (for 'boyfriend', read 'pimp'). She won't sleep with him, though they're naked and he's on top of her, so she asks him why he's abusive. The most amazing thing but one is the 'truth' he unfolds on her: 'You need a good beating every once in a while. All women do. And you especially. OK?' The most amazing thing is that response is all she wanted! Now she can have fun! If there's anything less politically correct in a horror movie, I'm not sure what it is, and yet it's hardly out of character for John, who proves as vile a male character as Rosalie is a female one, controlling her through violence and drugs. Compared to this scene, the otherwise bizarre hallucination montage of Crazy Fat Ethel murdering mannequins and frolicking through a San Francisco park in a red muumuu are almost run of the mill.
There's more to relish here, for explorers of Cinematic Hell. Ethel attempts increasingly extreme methods to dispose of the growing number of corpses in her front bedroom, which leads to some surreal situation comedy at a cliffside as she tries to find gaps between tourists to dump body parts into the sea. George 'Buck' Flower turns up as a cop, asking pertinent questions of Ethel, who is as childlike and transparent with the lies she replies as with anything else in the film. She was painted deliberately unsympathetic, but comes across more like a six year old persona in a much older and much larger body. There are quite a few brutal murders, though as always the logistics don't follow the laws of physics, so victims can crawl away even after being bludgeoned in the head repeatedly with a cleaver. And to top it all, the final scene with Ethel and the cop is both memorably gruesome and frankly inevitable given the subject matter of the film.
Millard apparently spent $30,000 on Criminally Insane, possibly the biggest budget he ever had, but it's a stretch to work out where it all went. Almost everything takes place within one house, which only required a tiny crew. None of the actors could have been expensive, given that only Buck Flower was notable elsewhere and this was so early in his career he was still going by C L Lefleur. Filming took five weeks in the spring of 1973, though the picture wasn't released for two years so perhaps post production costs spiralled. Millard chose to make offbeat movies like this as he believed Hollywood couldn't be beaten at genre film, but his DVD commentary suggests that he doesn't quite grasp what his film has. He believes 'the writer is the king' but he couldn't say much about his writing here, which has importance, albeit not in ways he expected. As a straight horror film, it's truly awful. Only as things that weren't intended does it have value.
I don't know that he even realised how ahead of his time having a female slasher was, let alone why Priscilla Alden's portrayal of Crazy Fat Ethel became a cult character. Sure, she's fat as all get out but it goes beyond that. While she doesn't appear to be retarded, she's the epitome of every mentally challenged villain, the little child stuck in the big body unable to deal with life as an adult. I have no idea if it was Millard who suggested that the actors underplay everything they did, but I doubt it. I think Alden chose to do that herself and the less experienced members of the cast instinctively played along. The more you see this film, the more creepy that gets as we're so attuned to expecting overacting, it's shocking to see underacting instead. More than anything, this is a real urban nightmare. All this happens in one house with nosy neighbours who don't ever discover what's going on next door. This is The 'Burbs without a copout ending.
Philips went on to make a number of horror movies, including a direct sequel to this film and two other films that are sequels thematically if not literally. Criminally Insane 2 aka Crazy Fat Ethel 2, released in 1987, used the same set and some of the same actors, but mostly because the first half of the movie is constructed almost entirely from footage taken from this film. Priscilla Alden returned that same year for Death Nurse, effectively making the same film as a nurse. A sequel followed a year later, inevitably called Death Nurse 2. Dotted in and amongst these pictures are other salacious titles such as Cemetery Sisters, Doctor Bloodbath and Dracula in Vegas, most of them straight to video releases without a gimmick like Crazy Fat Ethel to give them an edge. His last film was an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, with Priscilla Alden as the appropriately named Mrs Grose. Maybe without her, he simply had nothing left to say.