Since the late 1970s, when photographer Cindy Sherman featured herself as nameless starlet in a series of B-movie-inspired black-and-white "film stills," she's become a veritable pop icon, the darling of radical feminist psychoanalytic theorists, postmodern aesthetes, museum curators, Vogue editors, and John Waters alike. (She recently appeared as herself in Waters's Pecker.) So why did Sherman's directorial debut languish on the shelves at Miramax Films for almost two years (after a few inconspicuous screenings in metropolitan art-houses, our town's not among them)--only to be shunted to video stores last week with no further ado?
The easy answer would be that the film, Office Killer, sucks. So said the vast majority of critics, who complained that this campy send-up of horror flicks--featuring Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald, and Jeanne Tripplehorn as dysfunctional, disgruntled colleagues at Constant Consumer magazine--was neither funny nor horrific, nor even very artsy. To an extent, this reaction is understandable, since Sherman dispenses with suspense almost entirely, preferring instead to indulge her perverse interest in the details of bodily decay. As passive-aggressive heroine Dorine Douglas (Kane) explains: "You may think once dead people are dead that that is the end of them. Not so..." Thus, à la Sherman (whose recent photographic work features dismembered mannequins reassembled in pornographic hermaphroditic tableaux), Dorine reconstitutes her downsized office in her basement rec room, playing make-believe workplace and "we're just one big happy family" games with domestic appliances, computer parts, and decomposing corpses.
And therein lies the more provocative answer: Office Killer doesn't suck. (In fact, I love it.) If anything, the movie works too well, taking horror's Freudian formulas to literal extremes. "As we grow up, we need to experience independence and adventure," Dorine explains as she secretly unplugs the electric chair-lift that her domineering, disabled mother requires to descend stairs. "That is the key to a successful mother-daughter relationship." If elsewhere the artist has deconstructed cinema, fashion, fairy tales, and classical portraiture, here she mocks Freud, film, and femininity with wicked humor. So even while incest-flashback scenes prove haunting, the camera's fixation on domestic appliances raises the possibility that the Electra complex involves a lust for vacuum cleaners as much as Daddy. And, per usual for any Sherman project, the perverse appurtenances of femininity--pearls, compacts, Lee press-ons, sunglasses, scarves--rival body parts as objects of fetishistic appeal.
Nevertheless, boys evidently favor their Freud undigested. Witness reports of Miramax's focus-group screening a couple of years ago, where young males who'd seen Kids, Basquiat, and subUrbia trashed Office Killer, complaining (according to Sherman), "'We want more Molly.' 'Why don't you have her take off her clothes?' 'More cleavage!'" Male movie critics hardly proved exceptions to this rule. In the San Francisco Chronicle's typical notice, reviewer Edward Guthmann avoided all discussion of Dorine's rotting basement booty, limiting his critique of Office Killer to the observation that Sherman's "first crack" at directing makes Kane's character the "anal-retentive...butt of office jokes." Freud, for one, would appreciate said critic's choice of language--while Sherman might suspect that he's been sneaking secret peeks at her art.
Office Killer (Dimension Home Video) is available for rent at area video stores.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.