Mark Savage has been slug­ging away in the micro-to-low bud­get film mines since the 1980’s, man­ag­ing to stay afloat and get films to the mar­ket­place along the way.  Unlike a lot of his brethren, he actu­al­ly rev­els in the free­dom that being under the radar offers: his fil­mog­ra­phy cov­ers a vari­ety of gen­res — erotic thrillers, action films, even exper­i­men­tal silent movies — with the com­mon thread being his will­ing­ness to toy with the rules and StressK-posexpec­ta­tions of dif­fer­ent gen­res.

Stressed To Kill is his lat­est release, boast­ing a high­er-than-usu­al bud­get that allows for more loca­tion shoot­ing and a gen­uine name actor in Armand Assante.  However, the larg­er scope doesn’t change his man­date: the results show he’s still will­ing to poke and prod the con­tours of his gen­re to achieve a unique­ly per­son­al end pro­duct.

The pro­tag­o­nist of Stressed To Kill is Bill (Bill Oberst, Jr.).  At the out­set of the film, he’s a sad sack: hen­pecked by a dom­i­neer­ing spouse (Sonia Curtis) and reg­u­lar­ly beat­en down by the indif­fer­ence and ego of those around him.  When he has a heart attack, his doc­tor (co-writer Tom Parnell) warns him he must remove the stres­sors from his life.  He takes the advice to heart and begins bump­ing off those who stress him out.  Unfortunately, tak­ing out the gar­den-vari­ety nui­sances reveals new­er, more insid­i­ous ones… and Bill’s homi­ci­dal hob­by attracts the atten­tion of an eccen­tric and very deter­mined detec­tive (Assante).

The result takes a lit­tle while to build up its head of steam — some sup­port­ing per­for­mances are pitched a lit­tle too over-the-top and the setup occa­sion­al­ly stum­bles in how it stacks the deck for its hero — but it’s worth stick­ing with.  As it pro­gress­es, it ful­fills its sto­ry­line while avoid­ing typ­i­cal themes and stock sce­nes.  For exam­ple, the sub­plot with the detec­tive plays out in a way you wouldn’t expect, result­ing in the film’s best writ­ten and act­ed scene.  It’StressK-pos2s also worth not­ing that Stressed To Kill doesn’t force its mur­der­ous pro­tag­o­nist into the expect­ed cri­sis of con­science,  result­ing in a cool sense of remove from his actions that enhances their dis­turbing nature with­out dilut­ing the film’s dark humor.

Savage’s direc­tion gets a lot of visu­al pol­ish from a low bud­get, impart­ing a col­or­ful look to the film that makes an inter­est­ing con­trast to the storyline’s sin­is­ter ele­ments.  The pac­ing is gen­tler than you might expect but this allows him to exper­i­ment with tone, includ­ing some unex­pect­ed detours into dra­ma that keep the audi­ence on its toes.  Best of all, he gets amaz­ing per­for­mances from Oberst and Assante.  Oberst under­plays beau­ti­ful­ly, bring­ing a qui­et inten­si­ty to his char­ac­ter that feels much more real than the usu­al “going crazy” the­atrics, and Assante gives a delight­ful­ly quirky per­for­mance rem­i­nis­cent of Marlon Brando’s work in the late ‘70s.  The lat­ter hits a fas­ci­nat­ing blend of sly humor and gen­uine men­ace, with the men­ace real­ly com­ing out in one lat­er scene that is best left to the audi­ence to dis­cov­er for them­selves.

In short, Stressed To Kill is a solid addi­tion of Savage’s eclec­tic fil­mog­ra­phy, show­ing the will­ful­ly exper­i­men­tal approach to gen­re that dis­tin­guish­es his work while gen­tly step­ping up the pro­duc­tion val­ue.  For the unini­ti­at­ed, this sits alongside Sensitive New Age Killer as an acces­si­ble entry point into his fil­mog­ra­phy.