Ever see one of those indie horror-comedies that was panned by the critics when it came out a couple decades ago just to realize that if it was released today that it would be the talk of the horror community? Well, that is 1997’s Office Killer starring Carol Kane (When a Stranger Calls), Molly Ringwald, and directed by famed photographer Cindy Sherman. Kane delivers an outstandingly bananas performance that is a combination of Norman Bates and Patrick Bateman. Sherman certainly displays her adoration for the cinematography of Hitchcock’s films in many of the scenes in how the shots are framed and blocked. You’re hard-pressed to find many reviews of this horror-comedy even on LetterBoxd. It’s baffling to me why this movie hasn’t received more attention from the horror community on Twitter, blogs, and podcasts. Perhaps it’s because it is no incredibly obscure that you have a hard time even finding it on DVD, let alone streaming. A friend of mine had to order his copy of the movie from Spain. That is how difficult it is to find this movie. Even the few reviews I found were not flattering–except a couple that write about what I witness in this movie. The title works in two ways (1) it’s a description of how even in the 90s there was a fear that computers would kill the traditional office environment and (2) the literal description of a slasher in the office. Furthermore, there are plenty of moments and kills that serve as a freudian commentary on the American workplace. So I suppose it’s up to me to direct attention to this horror gem!
From the beginning, I had a feeling that I was in store for a highly artistic indie darling of a movie as soon as I saw the fantastically creative opening credits accompanied by a creepy score. Following the opening credits, there was a very Hitchcock shot that intrigued me and tipped its hat to Sherman channeling her award-winning photography into the moving images on the screen. Typically, horror movies don’t have narration but we begin with a narration. Not knowing anything about this movie, I was completely unsure of what to expect. Even the first kill didn’t tell me that I was about to watch a slasher. But as I learned more about Dorine (Kane), the more I was sucked into her world and completely intrigued by her choices and lack of social awareness. Playing opposite Kane is the indelible Molly Ringwald as the bitchy, judgy coworker Kim. Her performance is great! Not great in that it’s a phenomenal performance, but great in that she showed that she can play a character that is in stark contrast to most of the characters she has played throughout her longstanding career. Most of the performances are caricatures of various people found in a typical office. In fact, I’m curious if The Office ever parodied Office Killer because it seems like a missed opportunity if not. If you are aware of an episode that pays homage to Office Killer, let me know!
Perhaps the strength of this movie is not the acting (albeit, Kane is fantastic), but the strength is in the production design, costuming, plot, and Freudian themes. On the plot. Yes, the plot. You may be scratching your head because most reviews have slammed the plot. But I feel that 1997 critics and even those who come across this film today largely missed the point of the plot. It’s not supposed to be a compelling story with thought provoking imagery and characters, it’s supposed to be a 70/80s horror movie that is darkly funny! It’s just happens to be taking place in the mid 1990s. Perhaps this movie came out too close to the 70s/80s and thus felt old and cheesy. I posit that if this movie came out today, that it would be praised for its embrace of what we love about 70s/80s slasher movies! We don’t watch and rewatch these movies because they have incredible plots. We watch them because they are lots of fun! And Office Killer is incredibly fun to watch. While we may not know precisely why Dorine’s switch flipped and she went full–what I’ll call–Norman Bateman, we are given indicators of her unstable psyche through her flashbacks to her sexually abusive father and complacent mother, and of course the present story of most of her coworkers bullying her. Those three elements, plus the opportunity, work together to set her up to be a total psycho. Her actual kills may not be creative–that is, the method by which she kills–but the creativity comes into play afterwards with the corpses piling up in her house. She talks to them, plays with them, articulates them in such a manner that they become her action figures so to speak. It’s incredibly creepy but in a comedic way.
Now for those Freudian elements. This is what I find most fascinating about the movie; and what should provoke conversations amongst cinephiles and horror enthusiasts. One of the earliest shots in the movie is an extreme closeup (or ECU) of a staff member’s mouth as she is on the phone. Her red lipstick accentuates her mouth and points to the Freudian oral fixation. The scenes that follow depict female office staff members in a variety of different capacities and situations. It appears as though Sherman was painting a portrait of the male gaze over the female body. Moreover, what this movie appears to comment on and depict is Freud’s study on Fetishism. According to Freud’s study, and not to over simplify, fetishism is a fixation on an object or physiological practice of a substitution for intercourse following a sexual desire awakening in the body and mind. In more contemporary terms, the definition of fetish has evolved beyond just sexuality, but is generally still associated with sexual practices. Since likely paternal sexual abuse happened to and her mother turned her head to the allegations, in an effort to deal with the trauma, Dorine substituted what she wanted to do to her parents and others who abuse or bully her by engaging in slasher-style killings.
Each of the kills is a warped poetic justice based upon what Dorine saw as wrong with the victim. A great example of this is the attempted strangling of Kim. Since Kim ran her mouth constantly, Dorine sought to silence her voice. This same idea can be applied to the other kills too, and even in how the corpses are treated in Dorine’s basement. There is a playful nature in Dorine’s approach to the kills and even more so with her interactions with them afterwards. The depths of her psychosis are revealed one layer at a time. Even when you think that Dorine is about to get caught, she gets away with it; she alludes her would-be captors by searching the want ads and heading for another job in an office–perhaps your office! With each kill, Dorine integrated an element of that victim into her own life. She goes from mousy, frumpy to stylish and seductive. Her office underwent a transition and so did she. Dorine killed her former self to become the self that she wants to be. There is so much to enjoy about this horror comedy, and it baffles me that more horror fans and cinephiles have not talked about this movie. If you can somehow get ahold of a copy, then I highly recommend it if you enjoy slasher movies with a tough of style and laughter.
You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.
Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!