There are few things more certain in life than that it begins in confusion and pain, and ends in death. Often, this ending is brutal, tragic; almost always it is unwelcome by whatever unfortunate soul finds they have overstayed their time on this floating madhouse in space. Whether, at the end of their life, they adjudge it as having been "good" or "ill," they seldom want to shuffle off this mortal coil and take their chances...on the other side.
Because of the inevitability of death, all men, whether they admit it or not, ponder it, if only upon occasion, fear it, and fret over it. It gives them secret delight, (the rubbernecker's delight at seeing a grisly accident on the highway, perhaps), to view the tragedy that has unfolded in the life of the OTHER guy. "Whew!" they reckon. "Thank God my luck held out better than the luck of that poor bastard over there! Otherwise, I'd have been a goner!" So explains the appeal of horror stories, movies, television programs, novels and all things gruesome and macabre to otherwise decent, hard-working "just plain folks."
When I was a wee tot, round about the year 1988, I use to wander the aisles of a down-at-the-heels K Mart in my hometown hellhole of Marion, Indiana. Decades later, I'm still serving the remainder of my sentence here. The K Mart, however, is gone, replaced by a Christian bookstore. In those halcyon days, however, the aisles of that particular business establishment often held interesting and obscure delights--trashy delights, albeit, but, delights nonetheless.
A company calling itself "Video Treasures" was always well-represented in the cut-out bin of the videocassette aisle--back then, media we can access easily through digital means and the internet, came imprinted on plastic spools of magnetic tape, which were likewise housed in a plastic shell. These "cassettes" (or, alternately, "VCR tapes") would be unspooled by a machine called..a VCR. Hooked up to the television, you could watch movies in the comfort of your living room; high as a kite, naked, drooling, and...by jabbers, what movies some of these were!
Video Treasures (do they still exist in any form?) sold low-quality, grungy VHS editions of low-budget horror films and other cultural rot: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Groove Tube, Night of the Living Dead...you get the picture (picture?). Cult films; but the image and sound quality were invariably low. C'est la vie.
One such film they offered was a horrible-looking thing I never got to see at the time, a video box depicting a monstrous fat lady holding a butcher knife. The film had the rather titillating (if comically absurd) title: CRAZY: FAT ETHEL 2. The tagline on the video box warned loudly: "Never come between Ethel and a well-stocked refrigerator!"
Even as far as grotesque, comic splatter films, it was a bit much. I was curiously curious: I had never, in my life, heard of Fat Ethel Part 1.
There was a reason for that, of course. Fat Ethel Part 1 was ACTUALLY, more correctly and widely known as Criminally Insane (1975). But I wouldn't know that for at least ten years.
The original Fat Ethel/Criminally Insane was shot on a dime store budget in San Francisco, in the early Seventies, and runs just a few minutes over an hour. It takes place in one, huge, claustrophobic old house on a hill, in a place you can imagine trolleys clicking and clacking by in 1902. The lighting is harsh, stark white; the film is undeniably very cheap. The soundtrack is plinks and ponks on stringed instruments, and some ambient eerieness here and there. In a sense, routine.
Written and directed by Nick Millard (as "Nick Phillips"), it has a sort of crude, no-budget grittiness that makes it the cinematic equivalent of an urban legend; perhaps a modern, morbid fairy story, wherein the ogress hides her victims, like Bluebeard, behind the locked door of her castle keep, finally deciding to batten on their very flesh.
Millard was a porn director throughout the Sixties, churning out dozens of titles such as Candy's Lustful Nature, The Erotic Mr. Rose, The Nympho and The Slut. (Given some of the titles listed at the Internet Movie Database, such as Are You Bored With Men? and Sappho '68, some of this must have been lesbian porn. Which we didn't realize even existed at that point in time.) Millard is the son of S.S. and Frances Millard, both listed as producers.
Somewhere along the line, he switched from kink to stink, and started to produce really low budget horror stuff, such as Death Nurse 2 and Cemetery Sisters. The majority of his film oeuvre is under a list of aliases longer than those on the average Wanted poster.
Criminally stars the morbidly obese Priscilla Alden as Ethel Janowski. Ethel, mentally impaired with schizophrenic rage and violent, homicidal outbursts, is seen in the beginning of the film being injected with sedatives at the mental home, given electroshock treatments in a really fake set-up, and is held down by nurses as she goes into a convulsive spasm of anger. Next scene, the cool, sedate Doctor Gerard (Cliff McDonald) tells Ethel's grandma (Jane Lambert) that Ethel is okay to be released; but adds, "If you can, get her to do something about her weight. Carrying all those extra pounds is hard on her heart."
Ethel and Grandma arrive home, the viewer, at this point, not sure that Ethel can even speak. Finally, Ethel and Grandma have a little heart-to-heart while Ethel scarfs what will be the first of many meals: "You know they tried to kill me in there," Ethel says, her voice tinged with menace. "One boiled egg and two slices of toast. That goddamned [...] doctor tried to starve me!" (Note: here Ethel uses a slur indicating Jewish.) Grandma is having none of it, and, seeing that Ethel is going to make monster buffet-style breakfasts of several eggs and a pan full of bacon, eventually locks away the food in a cabinet.
The result? Ethel, unable to gorge herself one evening, confronts Grandma, who dutifully tells her, per the doctor's instructions, that she is going to have to lose some weight. "Ethel, do you know how much it costs to feed you?" asks Grandma. "The unemployment checks don't even begin to cover the cost!" While we're fairly certain what they must have meant was "social security" checks, Ethel reacts in predictable rage at being denied good eats. She accidentally, and then willfully, begins to stab grandma with a butcher knife.
This is bloody, but unconvincing. Regardless, Ethel is unruffled, but seems confused at what to do now that she has killed her grandma. She locks the old biddy up in her bedroom. Then, she orders the groceries.
"Look, We Gotta Eat!"
The delivery boy comes to the door, and Ethel only has four dollars. Requiring eighty, he picks up the groceries in a huff and starts to walk out. Ethel dispatches him with a piece of broken candlestick, and thus...has body number two to deal with now.
Ethel's prostitute sister, Rosalie (Lisa Farros) shows up the next day, wondering where Grandma is but not appearing too bothered by her absence. She tells Ethel, "God, I think you're fatter than I've ever seen you!" She also informs her she'll be staying for a few days. (Their mother, apparently, is also "shacked-up" with a Filipino man, and a bit more racist invective is voiced.)
Rosalie, a not-very-attractive Seventies go-go queen, brings home half-drunk johns, but it is her creepy ass of a boyfriend, the coke-sniffing pimp John (Michael Flood) who, while insulting Ethel ("God, what have they been feeding you?"), manages to raise the disgust factor here a few more notches. Slimy, skinny, dressed like a disco refugee, and adorning himself in base make-up, John tells Rosalie: "Sometimes you need a good beating..." And he is more than willing to oblige Rosalie what she needs.
Soon, the stench of Grandma and the delivery boy become overwhelming behind the locked bedroom door. John and Rosalie complain, and Ethel makes the excuse she cannot find the key. The couple, complaining that they cannot tolerate the smell, swear that they will break the door down if Grandma doesn't come back soon and take care of it, somehow.
Ethel kills them both as they lie in bed. John goes to hell in a pool of bloody, dark paint, crawling across the floor like a red slug, until Ethel dispatches him. Rosalie begs for her life, emits a scream queen scream worthy of Linnea Quigley, and is likewise dispatched. The bodies keep stacking up. Ethel eats, a lot, just to pass the time.
She also watches television. Gunsmoke,
A client of Rosalie's, who looks and sounds as if he should be standing on a skid row corner, drinking from a paper bag, rushes in to find his "darling" Rosalie, and get serviced. Discovering the duo dead, he panics. Ethel strangles the life from him. Body number five.
A cop from Missing Persons stops by to question Ethel as to the whereabouts of the grocery delivery boy. "He must have gone to Tijuana with your eighty bucks." Ethel gives him a cock n' bull story, and he vanishes. For the time being.
"My Grandmother Doesn't Want to Talk to You!"
Dr Gerard comes calling, noting that he must speak with Ethel's grandma. Ethel dispatches him with a huge metal candelabrum. Into the corpse room he goes.
Ethel, a corpse-collector par excellence, now has the problem of disposing of the rotting, smelly remains of six people. To this end, she tries to dig a grave in the backyard, but finds the soil too stony. (Shades of the real-life serial killer Dorothea Puente, who buried her elderly rooming-house victims in the backyard.)
Thus, she dismembers the bodies, and stuffs some of the body parts into a sack. She takes these out to a cliff overlooking the ocean, but finds that too many witnesses means she can't risk tossing the thing over right there into the water. She goes back home, and, perhaps, she is so mentally ill she forgets to close the trunk of her car (that she even knows how to drive seems, to the audience, a wonder).
Sleeping, we see close-ups of Ethel's dreaming, amused face, and the images cut to scenes of her running, again and again, down the hallway, weilding her bloody cleaver. Inter cut are her butchering what appear to be bloody mannequins, scenes of driving through a cemetery, and shots of Ethel cleaning blood from her blade. She giggles repeatedly, amused at her life, it seems, and what she has done. (The final scene sees her running in a flowing gown through what appears to be a park, with pigeons flying upward. Or maybe they're doves?)
Ethel is, we see, subconsciously exultant in murder. She sees her victims as little more than shopping center mannequins; and, quite possibly, obsessed to the point of madness as she must be with body image issues and her own fat (which she seems, while awake, to disregard), she takes her primal delight in mutilating their more perfect forms.
While Ethel is sleeping, a nosy neighbor lady sees a severed arm in Ethel's trunk. Screaming, she dials the police. The Missing Persons detective rushes on over, and going up the stairs, looking for Ethel, comes upon an open door.
Ethel has, at the very least, discovered a method of ridding herself of ONE body--Grandma's.
By EATING it.
The film ends with a couple of lightning-quick edits of Ethel's blood-smeared mouth. The End.
Eisenhower is Dead
If there is a subtextual message in this primitive, exploitative little shocker, it is that the American Dream, as typified by green lawns, white picket fences, happy, stable families, and, above all, moderation and human decency, DIED with the onset of 196os LSD, Free Love, Woodstock, Hard Rock, and general social dropping-out. The remains of that era, into the 1970s, were seen in what became of the lives of the era's children-such as the Janowski girls: the morbidly obese and psychotic Ethel, and her sister, the glum and unattractive prostitute cum punching-bag, Rosalie; who, upon being told by her boyfriend that she sometimes "needs a good beating," begins to make love to him with that much more passion. The viewer realizes Rosalie enjoys the abuse; to be exploited and hurt is her jaded turn-on. She feels, as so many in real-life do, that she deserves it. To that end, she acquiesces to the fate of her own punishing life.
Ethel, on the other hand, is so emotionally damaged her only solace is to stuff her face. And, to disappear down the black hole of television fantasies and daydreams. She may dream of freedom, may dream of running with ascending birds, or damaging the perfect bodies of plastic people--but she is distant and nearly child-like...until angered, of course. Then, the pent-up torrent of abuse she has suffered manifests in dark, homicidal murder.
One can only surmise the amount of trauma from childhood that both of these women have endured, to bring them to such a sorry state. It is interesting to note, too, that, beyond Grandma, who is dispatched first, all of Ethel's OTHER victims are, in some way, agents of exploitation: Rosalie the whore, her boyfriend, the drug-sniffing pimp, the john, the delivery boy who wished to overcharge her--and, of course, Dr. Gerard. All of these characters represent facets of society gone wrong, warped; Ethel, in her primitive angst, puts them all down with a bloody vengeance. Just, surmises the viewer, so that she can resume, uninterrupted, a life of eating and watching television, as a soporific for her emptiness and despair.
The K Mart wherein I first became aware of the existence of Ethel was the same place that, during that period, I discovered Bloodletters and Badmen, the classic compendium of American crime by Jay Robert Nash. In those thrilling, yet undeniably morbid and bloodcurdling pages, I read many of the same sordid details that had been stitched-together for the micro-budgeted Criminally Insane: backyard burials, smelly corpse-rooms, cannibalism, etc.
Murder, murder, murder...
I use to read it sitting in the snack bar at the K Mart, which was usually staffed by obese old women, doling out mashed potatoes and gravy and peas and corn and Salisbury Steak--which all smelled delicious, and I use to like it all very much.
One day, while sitting back there with the store's copy of Bloodletters, I looked up to see a cockroach crawling up the K Mart cafeteria's walls. I might have been eating something I suppose. I don't, now, remember.
If I was, I KNOW it ruined my appetite.
But, you damn sure know it wouldn't have ruined Ethel's
Somehow, that seems the perfect way to end.