Sunday, July 5, 2009

In short: Criminally Insane (1975)

Ah, Ethel (Priscilla Alden)! Put into an asylum because of her violent outbursts, regularly treated with electro shocks and still not healed. And her doctor is giving her back into the care of her grandmother (Jane Lambert) anyway. He'll probably regret it, if only for a very short moment.

He's a great doctor, he is, and so he recommends to Gramma that she should decrease heavily overweight Ethel's calorie intake, which is obviously the right thing to do with someone with the delusion that others want to starve her.

One prevented meal comes to the other and a kitchen knife finds Granny's back. Finally Ethel can eat whenever she wants and how much she wants. Or so she thinks.

In truth, Ethel will have a lot of troublesome people to deal with before she can eat peacefully. There are delivery boys, psychiatrists, sisters who work as prostitutes and evil boyfriends to take care of. Ethel will also have to learn that keeping the dead bodies of one's victims locked away in one's home is a stinky business.

Criminally Insane was made in Oakland by the prolific low-low-budget filmmaker Nick Millard (also known as Nick Phillips). As the others of his films I've seen, it's technically crude (but obviously trying very hard to make the best of its budget), raw and rather fascinating.

What sounds like a mean series of jokes about overweight people is given a sense of humanity and reality by Priscilla Alden's spot-on performance. Alden is as good as any semi-professional actress I've ever seen, mostly working through presence and a line delivery that might have been much too affectless for a different role, but fits perfectly here.

The film mostly plays out as an 70s psycho movie reduced to its bare essentials, brought back to an ugly semi-reality of provincial life with casual racism and violence, but also given some gloriously funny moments that work as added reality checks. The scene in which Ethel finally wants to do something about her corpse problem by burying her victims in the garden, only to be first annoyed by a nosy neighbour peeking over the fence and then completely prevented from realizing her plan by the simple fact that the soil is bad for digging alone is worth the price of admission. Ethel is the perfect antidote to the sexy, suave serial killer of today.


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