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 expectations 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’s 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.