Thursdays with Dorty: CRAZY FAT ETHEL is a Perfect Grindhouse Throwback

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a man of my word… except when it comes to punctuality. Being “on time” isn’t my strongest suit… and thus… it should come as no surprise that Tuesdays with Dorty is once again appearing late… this time on a Thursday. No matter what day this installment appears on, however, we’re in for Brian Dorton’s biggest hit to date… his remake of the 1970s exploitation horror film Criminally Insane entitled Crazy Fat Ethel.

Director Nick Millard’s 1975 exploitation slasher is surely a unique one… albeit the particular era and style in question is full of unique and weird little gems. Thus, it makes sense for a filth monger like Brian Dorton to mine the depths of the 70s exploitation era when looking for ideas.

The original film Criminally Insane [pictured above] came out in the mid 70s during the height of Grindhouse exploitation so it was clear from the beginning that we’d do as little polishing as possible. Once we secured the rights to do a film with the Ethel character I knew I wanted to use the aka title “Crazy Fat Ethel” which is very much a Grindhouse title.

Of course, the original film was only 61 minutes long and features in the modern day cant really get away with a runtime under 75-80 minutes, so the script and story needed a bit of beefing up and some tweaks.

We definitely expanded on things like character development, especially Ethel. We upped the ante of the blood and gore. There’s blood in the original but no gore.

So, in addition to fleshing out the characters and filling out the story’s details, Dorton and crew upped the gore factor from nearly nothing. The resulting scenes were fantastic, practical, and effective gore scenes that Dorton himself put together.

The film, at noted above, is Dorton’s most recognizable work. Receiving praise from various outlets, Crazy Fat Ethel has been heralded as an exploitation remake done right. It both updates and modernizes the story, while also retaining the original’s grit and spirit. The story is about an escaped mental institution patient who kills and maims anyone who gets in between her and her next meal. It’s a simple, but effective premise – with a good script and stellar casting.

The original Ethel in the 1975 film, Priscilla Alden, gives a strong performance in her own right, but multiple time Dorton collaborator Dixie Gers really takes the role to a new level. Her ability to portray Ethel’s aloof and distant nature, as well as her pure insanity when snapping, is enviable. She clearly takes some inspiration from Alden, but makes the role her own. There’s never a doubt that Gers is Ethel. She truly embodies the role and is one of the most important things in making this film work so well.

Additionally, Gers is surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including new and old faces when it comes to Dorton’s work. Jenny Coulter’s Aunt Joyce is a standout amongst the cast. And, Dorton himself is in the film, something that’s become part of Dorton’s MO by this time.

If you’ve been following our weekly(ish) series on Dorton’s filmography, you’d know that he and his team are no strangers to filth and trash, which are certainly employed in this Grindhouse throwback. But, the new territory here is Dorton’s commitment to employing slasher tropes and horror minded decisions. Truly, Madly – while also a horror film – mostly only dabbles in this realm, as do the Trashology films at times. Here, we’re subjected to an out and out horror film. This makes the gorehound ghoul inside of this film fiend quite happy.

In addition to the horror specific decisions, the film also pushes other envelopes. It features a rape scene, something that’s always a bit harrowing and seemed like pretty new territory in Dorton’s work.

It was one of the last things we shot. I felt everyone would feel more comfortable the more time spent together. It was a closed set of only 4 people. The 3 in the scene and I shot it. Even though it was a serious situation, we were laughing once the camera stopped since we had all become close friends.

The jolting nature of the rape was amplified by its juxtaposition alongside a scene of consensual, raunchy, and almost comical sex.

The two scenes weren’t planned to be intertwined together. But as you mentioned it’s jarring that way and I knew we had a trashy slasher on our hands so we pushed the boundaries in some areas.

While Crazy Fat Ethel is surely not for everyone, it hits as the film most in my particular wheelhouse, as a devout horror fan… and it present the penultimate in our series on Dorton’s work. Next week, we’ll be taking a brief break from this column to catch up on some other work… but in two weeks, we will wrap with The Horror Network, an anthology film featuring Dorton (that you can watch free on Tubi if you’d like to watch along with us), and a full interview with Brian on his career, filmography, and what’s next.

If you like grimy, trashy, slashy exploitation, you can grab Crazy Fat Ethel on Blu-ray through Brian Dorton’s eBay store. If you prefer streaming, it’s also available for purchase at Google Play.

Justin has been running websites since his first Geocities site in 1994, but only did he ever start covering anything of substance years later. After he stopped regularly running local concerts in Northern NJ and the greater Philly area, he knew he needed to step up his writing game if he expected to continue to get free music to listen to. He writes regularly here and at Cinapse, as well as contributing to a few other sites on occasion. He likes music, film, the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers, talking about Criminal Justice, reading Intelligence Report, and his family... not in that order. His beautiful wife is far more talented than he is and his kids far more adorable... and crazy.
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