Bird Watching – Cindy Sherman’s “Office Killer”
Among the rules of life if you are a character in a movie is: always be nice to the office freak. This person is about 5000% more likely than other characters to either go on a killing spree or become incredibly successful, by my scientific estimation. Either way, you want to be on their good side. I’m pretty sure the title of Cindy Sherman’s 1997 horror comedy Office Killer gives away which situation we’re in this time.
Our scene is set in probably the blandest, most oppressive office this side of Initech. No one has even bothered putting a potted plant here or there, probably because it would somehow make things even more depressing. A boss who seems to be half beauty queen, half ghoul (Barbara Sukowa—Rainier Werner Fassbinder would not have wanted to see you like this, Barbara) chain smokes and points her talons at the minions who are meant to be creating an issue of a consumer review magazine. This is a hellish place. Among the staff: the highly ambitious Norah (Jeanne Tripplehorn), spearheading a downsizing movement that is moving people to part-time and sending some of them to work from home via new-fangled laptops; Kim (Molly Ringwald), who feels she should have more clout but never seems to actually do any work; and Dorine (Carol Kane) a copy editor who knows everything about grammar and nothing about how to make friends or draw her eyebrows on straight.
Dorine faces more than her fair share of the not-so-minor abuses of everyday life, whether from her aging mother at home or from article writer Gary—mustachioed, crude and lewd. Left alone late at the office together, a random accident causes Gary to be electrocuted, killing him. Dorine’s impulse is to call 911, as most people’s would be, but something about staring at that dead body seems to wake something up inside her. She hangs up the phone, and drags the body home to her basement. Soon she’s set up a frightful tableau, with Gary ready to keep her company as she watches TV and eats a nice snack.
Though this first death was accidental, it isn’t long before Dorine decides that more killing could solve some of her problems with all of these pesky people in her life. The bodies begin piling up in her basement, but a few emails sent from fake accounts help to make it a comically long time before anyone really realizes that anything is wrong. Only Kim suspects something is amiss with Dorine, but it comes off as Mean Girl hatred, and Norah and her boyfriend (pre-Sopranos Michael Imperioli sighting!) are sure there must be some other logical explanation for the weird stuff going on. People, there is never some other logical explanation. Get with it.
Cindy Sherman is a well-known photographer whose most famous collection, “Untitled Film Stills,” resides at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The series was made between 1977 and 1980, and features Sherman herself posing as various incarnations of fictional Hollywood starlets and versions of many cliché film roles for women. I recommend checking them out (they are highly Google-able), as they offer interesting commentary on a certain section of this pop culture we all share (and, frankly, they are just cool).
Office Killer is the only film Sherman’s ever directed, and I wonder if she would have made more had it been better received. It is true that the film is a bit scattershot as far as what tone it’s going for, seeming at times to be a bit of a wacky character study and at others to be straight-up satire. The humor isn’t the blatant, broad type that is often seen in horror comedies, and the pacing is sluggish at times. Still, I’m surprised that more people haven’t discovered and enjoyed the film. All other problems aside, Carol Kane’s performance makes it very much worth watching. She goes all out, forming the perfect demeanor and facial expressions to be funny and frightening at the same time. The woman is a treasure. The rest of the cast, made up of so many people I like, really has less to do than indicated by the amount of time they all spend on screen. Kane is the main draw. I also suspect the film has aged well from a campy, cult perspective; it was quite amusing watching from 2011 the horror of the new technology being thrust upon Dorine at the office, and then how she discovers using it can help her get away with murder.
Office Killer is currently streaming on Netflix.