Criminally Insane has that special grindhouse funk that makes you want to take a shower when it’s over. It’s an odiferous melange of low budget, in your face, filming coupled with buckets of fire engine red blood, nasty lighting, and grotesque images that aren’t quite realistic enough to be shocking but still manage to be gross. In its best moments, It’s scummy like a Warhol film and melodramatic like a Waters film. I could easily see Devine in the starring role, but Criminally Insane is not intending to be camp. It’s trying to shock its audience with graphic horror. It’s no Psycho but it has a certain blunt charm.
Ethel is an obese mental patient who is released from the hospital and placed in the care of her grandmother who lives in one of those beautiful Victorian row houses somewhere in San Francisco. As a character Ethel’s motivation is pretty straight forward, she wants to be left alone so she can eat. Anyone who gets between her and her food is hacked to death with a butcher knife.
There isn’t much more to the film than that but it’s the nature of the killings and Ethel’s complete exasperation with her surroundings that make the film compelling. The grocery delivery guy arrives at her door but he won't give Ethel her groceries until she settles her tab. She doesn’t have the money and she’s hungry. She has no patience to sort out the particulars so she kills him. She kills lots of people, mostly with a butcher knife, but when she doesn’t have her butcher knife handy she simply grabs the nearest hard object and bludgeons her victim to death, but she doesn’t stop there. Driven by a maniacal determination Ethel relentlessly continues to bludgeon and hack at her victims long after they are dead. The director, Nick Millard, isn’t stingy with the blood/ paint either. Sticky pools of scarlet goo drip and splatter everywhere and Ethel just keeps hacking away until she has sated her anger.
The editing is rudimentary at best but it helps give the film its gritty edge. It is fascinating to watch how bad editing reveals the secrets of cinema-craft. The illusion that good editing can create is so powerful, so fluid we often miss it. We get caught up in the moment and lose sight of the cuts. Bad editing allows the viewer to break down the elements and observe the inner workings of montage. It’s like watching a bad magician who is unable to hide the necessary subterfuge and ends up revealing to the audience how the trick is done. Editing is a delicate art that requires subtle tweaks and tiny shifts. It takes only the slightest change in rhythm to completely alter the feeling or meaning of a given sequence. The razor blade and Scotch tape approach of grindhouse just stomps right through and slaps images together to get it done before they have to pay for another hour in the editing suite.
If there is any metaphor or deeper meaning in Criminally Insane it would have to revolve around consumerism. Ethel is a voracious consumer-focused completely on her own satisfaction. She is a pathological narcissist and sees people as either useful to her or not. Either you can make me a chocolate cake or you are just another annoyance that has to be unceremoniously butchered. She is America, the enormous and ever-hungry bully who is only interested in other countries if they have some commodity to offer.
Ethel never plans her murders, she really isn’t bloodthirsty, but she has no patience with someone getting in her way. She drags all the dead bodies into her grandmother’s bedroom, including the bloody corpse of her grandmother. They stack up and begin to rot like the rabbit in Polanski’s Repulsion. They grow green fuzzy slime and emit a very strong odor.
Watching Ethel spray an entire can of air freshener over the pile of corpses is again reminiscent of America. She is the government and the media spraying a pathetically thin fog of disinformation hoping to cover up America’s indiscretions.
Ethel just wants to get on with her life but the consequences of her impulsive actions keep getting in her way. As a true narcissist, she constantly feels victimized and her victimhood entitles her to prompt deference and snappy service, which she never gets.
Watching grindhouse films one must be ready to embrace a lot of ragged and rough cinematography but bad sound is another thing altogether. As a species, we are far more permissive with what goes in our eyes than what goes in our ears. There is a hierarchy of the senses with the eyes being the most permissive and the mouth being the most restricted. Criminally Insane is not aurally friendly. The volume jumps from glaringly loud to an inaudible whisper drowned out in ambient fuzz. Sounds are cut off and things also get out of synch, but it’s the loud industrial, hum that really rattles you. In a shot-reverse-shot exchange, the hum will drown out one person’s voice and then abruptly disappear when the other person speaks. Badly lit, choppy imagery is funny, but bad sound grates on the nerves.
Speaking of grating nerves there is the musical soundtrack to consider. What the fuck is it with clarinets? Why? What is so special about clarinets that they have to be featured in every other soundtrack? Clarinets are used for everything. They noodle aimlessly while people search the bad guy’s room, or lovers flirt over a drink, or someone mops a floor. They’re like an all-purpose soundtrack machine. Like too many other films, Criminally Insane is a never-ending walk through clarinetland with an occasional foray into fluteville.
Just as the film is settling into a predictable routine the third act is interrupted by an impressionistic montage or Millard’s idea of an impressionistic montage. For no reason that I can discern, we get about 3 minutes of Ethel hacking away at a mannequin interspersed with footage of a graveyard shot from a moving car. To make it arty, everything switches back and forth between negative and positive. The negative exposures are probably intended to be otherworldly and psychedelic but they are mostly just annoying. The whole thing doesn’t last very long and then Millard gets back to the movie as if nothing has happened.
Criminally Insane revels in greed and gluttony and it is made in a way that is consistent with unabashed indulgence. If one violent murder is entertaining then five or six murders must be more entertaining. If one bucket of blood is shocking then ten buckets must be even more shocking! It’s the American way. Wendy’s makes a triple cheeseburger with three quarter-pound patties topped with bacon totaling 1160 calories. One Wendy’s featured what they called The T-rex Burger with 9 patties. That’s more than two pounds of meat.
(Spoiler alert )
After more than an hour of Ethel chopping people up the film doesn’t really have anywhere to go so in a last-ditch effort to appall Ethel turns to cannibalism. All those rotten bodies in grandma’s room need to go somewhere so in an effort to hide the evidence Ethel sets to work.
If the American metaphor is followed to the end then Ethel’s cannibalism reflects America’s exploitation of its own population. After enslaving the third world to make Happy Meal toys and sneakers America must mesmerize its own populace into buying it all.
America eats itself, leaving only a small group of bloated cannibals at the top stuffed with masses of disenfranchised consumers. Before they are consumed, consumers soothe themselves by consuming. To consume is not only to eat but to dominate. I own and control what I consume. It’s my car, my iPhone, my chocolate cake and I can eat it in my car while texting someone food porn and waiting in line at the drive-through for more chocolate cake.
Criminally Insane was made in 1975. 12 years later they made a sequel called Criminally Insane 2. Under no circumstances are you to seek out or watch Criminally Insane 2. If you do, I can not be held responsible for what happens. Criminally Insane 2 is just a super low-quality video of Ethel sitting and staring into the distance while she flashes back to clips from Criminally Insane 1. The few minutes when Criminally Insane 2 is not flashing back to Criminally Insane 1 it is retreading the same ground that Criminally Insane 1 so artlessly tread. Ethel is up to her old tricks murdering anyone who comes knocking at her door but this time the editing is so bad it’s hard to bear. Criminally Insane 2 is 1 hour long, and by the end of the film, they no longer bother to differentiate between the two. The film just flips back forth without regard to plot or continuity. Just forget I ever said anything about it.
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