Great Halloween Movie Countdown #1 : “Criminally Insane” (a.k.a. “Crazy Fat Ethel”)

Posted: October 27, 2009 in movies
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"Criminally Insane" Movie Poster

And so we come to the end of our little Halloween recommended viewing list, and while I’ve stressed time and again that it’s not really a “countdown” in the strictest (or any) sense (which begs the question of why I even called it one in the first place, and I’m afraid I don’t have a good — or again, any — answer), I assure you that I have indeed saved the best for last. If you’re going to take the easy (and entirely understandable) way out and only see one movie from this list, make it this one.

Why, you may ask? Is it the best flick on the list? No, of course not. It’s not even particularly “good” by any commonly understood definition of the term.

Is it, then, the scariest or most frightening? Good heavens no, it’s not even close to being scary at all.

Is it the most competent or well-executed? Are you kidding? It’s absolutely ludicrous, and down there with anything in the Ed Wood or Coleman Francis oeuvre in terms of technical accomplishment.

Then for the love of God, you may ask (again), why?????????????

That’s easy. Because this 1975 ultra-shot (61 minutes) “feature” from legendary bargain-basement auteur Nick Millard (billed here as Nick Philips — he has, according to the IMDB, no fewer than 21 aliases he worked under during his anything-but-illustrious career, seemingly changing names as often as the rest of us do underwear, usually depending on whether he was working on soft-core or on horror cheapies) is — pun absolutely intended this time — two tons of fun.

Billed as “250 Pounds of Maniacal Fury,” our protagonist here, one Ethel Jankowski (Priscilla Alder in a delicious role she really sinks her teeth into—again, both puns fully intended), actually tops the scales at well over (how much over I couldn’t say) 300, and she’s just been released from a mental institution where she was given a steady regimen of electroshock “treatment”(I’ve never understood why attaching electrodes to someone’s genitals qualifies as torture while attaching them to their temples is considered “therapy”) entirely against her will, and now she’s supposedly calm and rational enough to go back into the “care” of the community and so moves into her grandmother’s rather quaint San Francisco (Millard made almost all his films in his home Bay Area environs) Victorian.

It doesn’t take long for tensions to arise, though, as after one day of watching Ethel eat her out of house and home (and garage and shed and summer cottage and detached fallout shelter and you get the metaphor here before I strain it any further, I’m sure) Grandma decides to lock up the kitchen cabinets to prevent Ethel from gorging herself to death.

Our girl Ethel already has a damn unpleasant disposition to start with (and a nasty racist, or at least ethnocentric, streak, as evidenced by lines like “That Jew doctor tried to starve me to death” when she’s telling granny about her stay in the bughouse), and having her supply of consumables padlocked (with grandma holding the only key, of course) really sets her off. So she does what any morbidly obese and fanatically determined psychopath would do, I suppose — hack her to death with a meat cleaver, takes her key, unlocks the cabinets, and stuffs her face.

The food runs out pretty quickly, though, and it isn’t long before Ethel needs to call in a grocery order. There’s just one problem : she owes the market $80 and she won’t get more food from them until she pays up. No problem, she tells the store’s owner, just send the delivery boy over and she’ll pay up her past due balance as well as pay for the current order.The kid gets there and tells Ethel she can’t have more food until she pays the $80 she owes, to which she replies “But I don;t have $80, I only have $4.50.”

What happens next? You guessed it, the kid gets killed and Ethel takes the box of groceries he brought over. She hides his body in grandma’s bedroom (where the corpse of the elder Jankowski is rotting away) just in time, it turns out, as her good-for-very-little (alright, nothing) prostitute sister, Rosalie, drops by unannounced and informs Ethel she had to get away from her old man who’s been beating the shit out of her and has to crash with her and grandma for awhile.

In short order, Rosalie and her guy get back together (making for some truly OTT politically incorrect “relationship dynamics” in the scenes they share — I’ll say no more), but their happy reunion really starts to cramp Ethel’s style when they start bitching about the nasty smell coming from behind the locked door to grandma’s room. You’ve probably already guessed who this little scenario is going to play itself out.

To make matters even worse for our bloated psycho, the cops have come around and started to ask questions, too, since it seems the grocery delivery boy never came back from work and Ethel’s explanation that he must have taken the 80 bucks and split town isn’t going to buy her too much time. And her doctor would like to know where her grandmother is since only Ethel seems to answer the phone.

There are no surprises here. Millard/Philips displays nothing like any sort of creative directorial flourish (although in fairness, what do you want for $30,00? — and Millard claims that’s the biggest budget he’s ever hard to work with!). the gore is plentiful, but also plenty cheap (it’s generally of the “go down to the hardware store and get me some red paint” variety). What saves this movie, then, from being just another entirely-unmemorable shot-in-a-week piece of throwaway celluloid pablum?

In a word, it’s Alden. She’s so deliriously deadpan and morbidly monotonous throughout — whether she’s eating, hacking up a body, eating some more, lying to the cops, eating even more, dealing with cheap insults from Rosalie’s boyfriend, eating still even more or — well, hell, eating still even more than that, she’s so coolly detached and matter-of-fact that you’d almost swear she was, in fact, cool — even though I guess she can’t be since she’s so fat, and Hollywood has taught us for years than fat people absolutely can’t be cool under any circumstances.

There’s no flustering Ethel, though — corner her and she’ll make some shit up. Don’t believe her lies and she’ll kill you. It’s as simple as that, really. Nothing comes between her and her food.

There’s something here to offend everyone, and you’ve gotta love it for that. There’s nothing even remotely subtle or, for that matter, tasteful about “Criminally Insane.” It’s pure dreck that embraces its status as cinematic filth and absolutely wallows in it. There’s no pretense — Philips couldn’t afford any and didn’t have the time. It’s trash — pure, unadulterated, unvarnished, and unashamed, and as such, it’s one of the most refreshingly honest movies you’re ever likely to see.

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Ethel in action ---

A final note about the (even by grindhouse standards absurdly) short run time — somehow, even though you wouldn’t mind if it went on longer, you don’t feel cheated, and it feels right. It’s not like this is a particularly complex story, anyway. Again, this is part and parcel of the absolute self-assuredness of this film. Granted, it’s self-assuredness borne of the fact that it had no other choice, but how damn great is that in a world where most movies spend at least half their run time trying to pretend to be more important than they really are?

“Criminally Insane,” unlike most of the uninspired navel-gazing that passes for “entertainment” these days, knows exactly what it is, and not only doesn’t care that you know, too, it states it proudly.  Quite frankly, if you’re going to crank out a $30,000 exploitation quickie about a 300-lb. female serial killer, this is the only way to do it.

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--- and Ethel inaction.

The good folks at Shock-O-Rama, under their Retro Shock-O-Rama banner,  have released “Criminally Insane” on DVD as part of their “Nick Philips Horror Trilogy Collection,” triple-feature, single-disc set, along with another bizarre 1975 Millard/Philips cheapie, “Satan’s Black Wedding,”  and the shot-on-video 1987 sequel, “Criminally Insane 2,” (also known, wouldn’t’cha know it, as “Crazy Fat Ethel 2” — and we’ll note in passing that Millard made another “sequel” of sorts starring Alden called “Death Nurse,” also in 1987, and a proper sequel to that, “Death Nurse 2,” in 1988 — both of which were also shot on video). The picture boasts a nice 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is supposedly “mastered from the original 35mm film elements, but still looks pretty crummy, it must be said — which probably can’t be avoided,  and is also quite fitting given the film itself, so I’m not really complaining even though it might sound like it — and let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t expect anything better anyway. The mono sound is fine, if occasionally muffled — again, as you’d probably expect.

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The "Nick Philips Horror Trilogy Collection" from Shock-O-Rama featuring "Criminally Insane"

What I will complain about a bit is the commentaries for all three films, featuring Philips and moderator 42nd Street Pete. These are dull, uninspired, and feature interminably lengthy stretches of absolute nothingness. Old Pete should have done a much better job of having some engaging lines of questioning ready for Philips, since he’s got a lot to say, as the three making-of featurettes (one for each movie) included on the disc attest to. He’s got a sharp memory and is an interesting guy, too bad these commentaries are such a snooze.

All in all, though, it’s a packed-to-the-rafters little package that delivers great value for money, and it’s worth owning just for the presence of “Criminally Insane” alone. The other stuff is just icing on the cake — pun, again, completely intended.

So that’s a wrap on our non-countdown Halloween countdown that I probably shouldn’t have called a countdown. I hope you’ll give some, or all, of these movies a try.  Hell, even one of them.  If I can convert one person somewhere over to one movie they otherwise wouldn’t have known about, much less seen, then all my harrowing struggle will have been worth it.

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