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Criminally Insane is a surprisingly entertaining film, especially for one that's only 60 minutes long and shot entirely in someone's grandma's house. I originally thought it looked like a home movie, until I saw the director's follow-up film "DEATH NURSE," at which point my opinion of the first film changed entirely. I was then impressed with the luster and sparkle of CRIMINALLY INSANE. The characters are really interesting, especially Ethel's hooker sister and her abusive pimp boyfriend who dreams of being in the movies. Most interesting, of course, is Ethel herself. Priscilla Alden, displaying something almost remotely resembling true moviestar charisma. She is a hoot to watch as she hacks her grandma to death out of frustration at finding the refridgerator empty. At only 60 minutes the plot moves along swiftly, with odd subplots rearing their head, including Ethel's incompetant attempts to dispose of the bodies. Very, very, very interesting. Very overlooked. Anyone who doesn't like this movie is a jerk.
CRIMINALLY INSANE is a real treat for cult horror fans. Don't get me
wrong, it is no classic and plays like a low rent H.G. Lewis film (yes,
you read that right) but there is just something inherently appealing
about this film.
The story is incredibly simple (Ethel kills nearly everyone she encounters) with few surprises (the end is a shocker though) but the film is infused with some great moments of black humor. The star of the film is, of course, Priscilla Alden as the criminally insane Ethel. I will stand my ground when I say the film's success rests firmly on her shoulders. Scenes of her repeatedly stabbing her grandmother while yelling, "I want that key! I want that key!" or her taking out a grocery store delivery boy are played perfectly. Despite Millard's claim that the got professional actors from Los Angeles, this is strictly amateur hour (sharp eyed viewers will catch a clean shaved George "Buck" Flower in there though). Strangely, all of this works to the film's benefit, creating some incredibly surreal moments.
The film is filled with plenty of these "what the hell" moments. For instance, Ethel's sister Rosalie and her abusive boyfriend John move in. During a bedroom romp, John explains to Rosalie that he beats her because "baby, sometime you need to be beaten." How does she react to this misogynist viewpoint? Why by embracing him and giving him a kiss! The film is incredibly cheap and Millard makes no bones about it. In fact, he is oddly proud of what appears on screen for his $30,000 ("the biggest budget I have ever had," he claims). Watching this type of "do it yourself" cinema reminds me of the aforementioned H.G. Lewis, the cult films from Something Weird or Frank Henenlotter's debut BASKET CASE. It may not be pretty but it is definitely entertaining.
I first saw "Criminally Insane" when I was about six years old and I knew immediately I wanted it. I bought it from the video store for $30.00 when my grandfather finally convinced me I wasn't gonna find it anywhere else for sale (and now I realize I'll probably never find it for rent again either). My father soon talked me into trading it in for "Aladdin". I thought I would never see it again. Then I found it at Movies Unlimited and I own it once again. It is one of the best "bad" movies ever made. No matter what anyone says, it's entertaining. Even my mom couldn't deny that she enjoyed it! Definitely a classic.
The only thing thats INSANE is how much I love this movie. There's something about boring low-budget horror that makes me feel peaceful and "at home". Its the way I feel about Friedel's "California Axe Massacre". I get a similar vibe from this movie. Ethel (Priscilla Alden) character is so stagnant and unfeeling (no over-acting here). I find it so entertaining to watch wig out within the first 10 minutes, slaughtering family members just because she's got a craving for Nilla Wafers. I can totally see why tons of people would hate this movie. Even though its only an hour long, I could see someone with a short attention span having a particularly big problem with this. But anyone who's awesome will dig it whole-heartedly. (Especially when the detective says "Oh My God" at the end) I do believe thats my favorite part.
Made in 1973 but not released until a couple of years later, CRIMINALLY
INSANE is probably the most famous movie made and released by IRMI Films of
Pacifica, California. The film stars Bay Area actress Priscilla Alden as
Ethel Janowski, an immensely obese misanthrope who is prematurely released
a mental institution and sent to live with her grandmother. Ethel's
insatiable appetite for food causes problems for her grandmother, who
promptly restricts her granddaughter's feeding habits. Big mistake! Ethel
does away with granny and any other visitor that enters the house.
This is probably the cheapest film I've ever seen (and believe me, I know cheap): the entire film has a grainy "home movie" quality, the music sounds like two musicians constantly tuning their instruments, negative printing is used for a dream sequence, and the acting is pitiful, except Alden, who gives a wonderfully demented and memorable performance as Ethel. This picture is extremely pathetic and even though I've never had the nerve to tell anyone else that I own the film (much less played it for anyone), I still find it very compelling viewing. There's some "other worldly" quality to it that makes it quite unique (and satisfying, if you've got really low standards like me). Don't say you weren't warned!
The exact same cast and crew returned for CRAZY FAT ETHEL II, and a loosely related film called DEATH NURSE (both released in 1987 and both starring Alden).
See, Ethel isn't actually insane. She just wants to eat, sit around the
house by herself and be left alone for some seconds on dessert. Maybe
thirds. Hell she'll clean off the whole sponge cake, the can of icing,
maybe some ice cream too on the side. If one thing, she's not shy about
her craving for food, and how she lets it consume her. She doesn't eat
the food so much as the food kind of uses her as a conduit. Ethel is
merely a walking process by which it gets eaten. I will always refer to
this movie by it's most famous re-title: FAT CRAZY ETHEL. Try it on a
double bill with FAT GUY GOES NUTZOID and remember the cheeze dip. FAT
CRAZY ETHEL was one of two startling horror features made by
porno/exploitation veteran Nick Millard in an ill-fated attempt to go
straight in the mid 1970s: Check out SATAN'S BLACK WEDDING for
something a bit more conventional, though not much more. His work might
not have grabbed hold of the imagination of mainstream viewers, but
fans of ultra-low budget indie regional horror will find a
fascinatingly claustrophobic and morbidly obese little horror thriller
here. The film mostly takes place within the creepy, tacky interior of
Ethel's aunt's house, where she has returned from a couple months of
helpful shock therapy to wean her from her insatiable cravings for
food. It didn't work but Ethel can live with it so long as the grocery
bill is paid. This in a neighborhood where groceries are delivered
right to your door: Bacon, chops, cereal, eggs, plenty of ice cream &
raw cookie dough.
The fun in this movie is twofold: First, watching Ethel slowly and in an almost Hitchcockian manner find herself pretty much needing to murder people to keep the flow of fatty, caloric foodstuffs coming -- and to silence any harping voices in the peanut gallery urging moderation. One of the things I like about how Ethel's character is drawn has to do with how profoundly unhip, square and uninvolved in the world she is. The deaths don't mean anything to her personally other than the need to hide the remains, which does become a problem after a while. But if it wasn't for her uncontrollable gluttony she could fit right at any social circle dedicated to the bitter & withdrawn. Like a Tool concert or maybe the MPAA. The other pleasure in the film is a guilty one, which is making fun of fat people. They are one of the last socially acceptable prejudices to have, since fat people are by nature absurd, greedy and unattractive pariahs now that one legged Eskimos with AIDS are off limits too. I'm playing devil's advocate with this one: Prejudice of any kind is a bad thing, especially when you get to know the target of your hatred as a person. The catch is that this movie doesn't really let you, keeping the viewer at arm's length observing her behavior and being welcomed to criticize or even outright laugh at her for being so disgusting. Watch her plow through a box of Nilla Wafers or scrape some extra eggs onto her plate to see what I mean. Since the film regards her as a freak and regards what she is doing with clinically detached disdain (killing people is worse than overeating, at least in my book) it's OK to regard her the same way. As a walking stomach.
Ridiculing someone for who they are is always more fun and safer in numbers, so ETHEL is actually quite a little crowd-pleaser and has a little cult following due to its short life as a Drive In curiosity or home rental oddity. It's hard to forget a movie like FAT CRAZY ETHEL, which once you get down to brass tacks is an exploitation film that is exploiting the obese & insane. Ethel is as sane as you or I, she just finds herself propelled down this path of antisocial behavior by her lust for food. The inevitability of it all is the payoff in a way, and while it may not be titillating to most to watch Ethel's life spiral out of control, the movie's utterly banal, humdrum and everyday look has a certain charm to it that fans of non-Hollywood "regional horror" will get a kick out of. And again the claustrophobia is hard to ignore, especially with a 350 pound woman occupying what little elbow room there is. That such a big woman is confined to such a teeny, tacky, unenjoyable house is half of what's scary about it: Imagine being stuck in there with her. Ick!
So it's behavioral horror where a person is defined by their behavior -- This is how 350 pound food addicts behave in the movies, taken to surreal heights of exaggeration that plays on our own paranoias. We all know the 300 pound shut in dysfunctional idiot up the block, we all suspect that something odd is going on behind closed doors that keeps them from sweating it off just via respiration, and here is an example of what they could be doing. It's almost a perfect little urban nightmare, and over quickly enough to allow viewers to also watch the comparatively awful & unredeemable FAT CRAZY ETHEL 2. If nothing else, that will help you appreciate what a taught little exercise in urban paranoia this is. It's ultra low budget and everyday reality production values may turn off viewers who rely on pyrotechnics or flying squirrels to enjoy a horror show, but give her a try especially in the company of friends and beer and snacks. Ethel gets her own bag.
This movie is funny for all the wrong reasons - the horrible acting, the lamentable special effects, the bizarre music, and the $.57 budget. However, if you're in the mood for something a little, uh, offbeat and darkly comic, watch this. I have honestly never seen anything funnier than "Criminally Insane" and I would recommend it for anybody who likes the weird, cheap, and hysterical.
Fat Ethel Janowski enjoys eating a lot.After staying in an asylum and having electro shocks therapy Ethel is released to live with her grandmother.Ethel wants to eat and her grandma tries to stop Ethel's eating habits.Ethel murders her grandmother with a kitchen knife and she can eat peacefully as much as she wants.In the meantime more murders take place.Technically crude,raw and suitably unsettling cult psycho-slasher about murderous obese woman.The gore effects are lame,the blood looks like a red paint,but the central performance of Priscilla Alden is great.I haven't seen the sequel of "Criminally Insane" or "Death Nurse" movies,but someday I will.8 out of 10.Don't mess with Crazy Fat Ethel.She will butcher you with meat cleaver and eat your tasty flesh.
Let me open up by setting the mood for this one. When "Criminally Insane" was first released in the theaters there was a large, industrial sized scale placed in the lobby of selected theaters where it was shown and any woman weighing over 250lbs was admitted to the film for free! This should help set the mood for this poorly filmed, inept but highly entertaining horror-cheapie. The saving grace of this film is the hysterical Priscilla Alden (the 250lbs actress who plays the role of Ethel Janowski). She plays the lead character so dead pan that you cannot help but be entertained by her as she fries a pound of bacon at a time, cooks a dozen eggs, or toasts an entire loaf of bread! Food is actually a character in this film and it is Ethel's worst enemy. She kills 6 people in between stuffing her face with a half-gallon of ice cream, an entire box of vanilla wafers, or a dozen sweet rolls and when she runs out of ideas about how to conceal the bodies...she eats them! Meanwhile she is also the rudest woman you will ever come across, concerned only with her next meal as she spouts anti-semitic statements about her doctor and calls the grocery boy (whom she had just murdered) a "smart-alec kid". So grab yourself a gallon of ice cream and enjoy this 70's horror gem!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As horror fans, we're used to seeing and celebrating iconic evil
images. Remember that feeling you felt when Regan's head did a 360 for
the first time. Or the time Jaws finally popped his head out from the
ocean? Well boys and girls, prepare yourselves for something truly
terrifying, because I have seen the true face of evil! Never mind the
likes of Freddy or Jason, beware of the one and only...Ethel!
I bet you're thinking, "meh, she's just some fat looking chick" but you'll be wrong to underestimate her. She's not just some fat looking chick, she's one CRAZY fat looking chick, and she'll mess you up!...if you interfere with her eating habits....
That's right! Call her fat, call her ugly, insult her to her face and she'll probably not even bat an eye lid, but get between her and her food, and God himself could not save your tortured soul from the grasps of hell she will send you! Ethel will not rest until her stomach is full, and god help us all...she's always hungry!
First of all, gosh I loved this movie! At 61 minutes, it does not overstay its welcome, matter of fact, I felt it was cut a bit too short. But no matter, there is a sequel (plus the Death Nurse movies) that reuses stock footage from it, in case I start to miss it.
Welcome to low budget territory! Now recently I've been watching some very low budget movies. Most of them only being successful if they were funny or gory. Criminally Insane is both. The dialogue is just magnificent. There were multiple times I burst out laughing, because I never expected such a ridiculous exchange. Take the conversation between Ethel and the boy who delivered her groceries straight to her house, for example. He brings her a whole box full of stuff, (remember, Ethel is fat, so she's buying in bulk). She ordered a stack of food, so he asks for $80 which seems reasonable. Ethel responds with "I don't have $80. I only have $4.50". I could go on and on listing some of the brilliant dialogue, I haven't even gotten to Ethel's sister and boyfriend yet!
Speaking of the sister and her boyfriend, I really should mention these guys. Because good lord, were they serious?! Rosalie is Ethel's skinnier sister, and is dating a guy that has no problem cheating on her, forcing her to be a hooker, and slapping her. Doesn't sound like something that's meant to be funny, but seriously, it is. Rosalie doesn't seem to have much problem with any of this. She puts up with it like it's nothing. I think she's got her own issues, but we don't really pay much mind to them. It's Ethel that's the real star of the show. Apart from her size, she's just hypnotic, it's hard not to become entranced in this movie just because of her.
So we've covered the grounds of it being funny, but did I mention it was gory? Cos it's drenched in blood. Red looking paint blood, but blood all the same. Sure, when she's hacking people up with a meat cleaver, it might resemble like she's slapping them with a rolled up newspaper, but it's the thought that counts and it equals to quite a bit of a body count. So much that it becomes a problem for Ethel on how to dispose of the bodies. You're gonna love the answer, I just know it. Stay tuned for the ending.
For a low budget flick that's about a homicidal women who kills when people try to stop her from eating, it's actually very well made and the actress playing Ethel (the late Priscilla Alden) really did a damn good job. As I mentioned earlier, it's hard not to find her performance hypnotic. Not sure how how old Ethel was meant to be in this movie, as she's being cared for by her grandma, but the actress was 36 when this movie was released, and Ethel looks a hell of a lot older then 36. I would have estimated somewhere in her 40s. She looked almost as old as her grandma.
I don't have much else to say about this movie, except to highly recommend it. For a bad movie, it's one of the best, and one I imagine many people enjoying. Just avoid the sequel at all costs.
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