Office Killer (1997)

Director: Cindy Sherman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A long time ago, January 15, 2006, to be exact, I posted a short essay on Cindy Sherman, a photographer whose work I greatly admire. At the time, I mentioned that I had ordered Office Killer, her directorial debut (actually, her only film as a director to date), and promised to review it. Reminded of this promise unfulfilled by viewing an exhibit of Gordon Parks’ photos and making plans to see a film he directed, I felt moved to rewatch Office Killer and carry through my original intention. Office Killer, a darkly humorous horror movie, isn’t the greatest thing out there, but certainly for fans of Sherman’s photography, the film is a richly rewarding experience.

The staff of Constant Consumer magazine are about to have a very bad day. Editor-in-chief Virginia Wingate (Barbara Sukova) is talking to bean counter Norah Reed (Jeanne Tripplehorn) about the massive layoffs Reed is recommending to save the troubled publication. A verbal skirmish during which Reed paints herself heroic for “saving your ass” and Wingate retorts that Reed knows “shit” about editing a magazine, ends with Wingate delegating the layoffs to this self-styled Joan of Arc.

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Norah makes her way to the copyediting department and hands out pink-slip-filled envelopes informing staff that they will be working part time from now on. “At least no one has lost their jobs yet,” says fatherly senior copy editor Mr. Landau (Mike Hodge). “Let’s get back to work.” Mousy copy editor Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane), her head bent low over the galley proofs she’s marking up, leaves her envelope unopened. When she finally gets around to reading its contents, she is shaking a replacement canister of dry ink for the photocopier. Her shakes get so vigorous, she spews the ink all over herself. Sympathetic Norah runs to her aid.

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Star writer Gary Michaels (David Thornton), a slimy, imperious jerk, and his bit on the side, Jill Poole (Molly Ringwald), work together and haven’t met a deadline in weeks. Because of this, Dorine is assigned to work with him on deadline night to see that he finishes. Dorine’s new computer, installed by Norah’s boyfriend Daniel Birch (Michael Imperioli), gives her the error message from hell and starts beeping as though counting down a missile launch. She retrieves Gary from his office, where he tries to feel her up and cuss her out at the same time. He shuts off the power so that he can work on the electrical connection and calls Dorine to hold a flashlight for him. Instead, he shines the light in her face, blinding her, and causing her to back up into the fuse box, restoring the electricity. Gary is fried. Dorine picks up the phone to call 911, but then doesn’t speak to the responder. She carts Gary down to her car on a mail trolley, stuffs him in her trunk, takes him to the home she shares with her invalid mother (Alice Drummond), and sits him down in the rec room. The combination of having her job threatened, this accidental death, and a mind warped by a sexually abusive father (Eric Bogosian) send Dorine on a killing rampage to populate her home with additional “playmates.”

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Office Killer takes the familiar viewpoint that offices are prisons that recreate the traumatic pecking order most people experience in their adolescence. Sherman emphasizes the cell-block quality by including medium shots of window banks in buildings with shaft-like courtyards, the human inhabitants of the office so small it’s hard to see them at all. She also opts for low angles that put her characters behind the “bars” of wire in-boxes, between walls, in door frames. None of this is particularly new or revolutionary: just take a look at The Ipcress File, and you’ll see ingenious framing to your heart’s content.

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What Sherman adds to the visual mix is her brand of tabloid/tableau, particularly in the way she captures Dorine’s face. Dorine’s eyebrows are deliberately drawn in a high, thin, arching line to emphasize a wild-eyed derangement that Carol Kane’s naturally large, round eyes accentuate. Dorine is the quintessential sexual hysteric who goes over the edge, the perfect Sherman cinematic type. Compare Dorine with Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and you’ll recognize the type Sherman is playing with.

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There are many other shots that scream Sherman to me. Take a look at the dead body and a still from Sherman’s series above; she loved to shoot reclining forms looking rather lost. She also creates a low-angle, almost fisheye look at scenes from Dorine’s past, again skewing the normal idyll of a 1950s childhood with odd angles and looks that give the entire film the kitschy menace so characteristic of her photography.

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Dorine’s killings are brutal and somewhat random. We are sure she will go after Jill, particularly after Jill bounces a wadded-up piece of paper off her head and screams insults at her. Will it be when Jill, having just been fired because she left Dorine alone to finish a story the vanished Gary never filed, boards an elevator to the covered garage below? Jill, as the only person who recognizes Dorine as a dangerous looney, manages to keep her guard up. Others are taken just because Dorine wants them to be part of her family, though she seeks revenge in the end against the woman who cut her job in half. Sherman revels in gore in a way that would make Stuart Gordon more than proud.

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Carol Kane gives a memorable comic performance with just the right amount of menace to make this a fairly proper horror film. She hates taking care of her invalid mother, unplugging the chair lift so that her mother can’t come downstairs to annoy her. When she arrives home one night and finds her mother dead, she goes into a grief-stricken panic over her mother’s body and then switches on a dime, intoning malevolently that she hopes her mother and father will be very happy dancing together in hell. It’s a hilarious moment among many that mine her vocal and facial dexterity.

Another great comic performance comes from Barbara Sukova, who twists her genuine German accent into a parody of Madeleine Kahn’s parody accent in Blazing Saddles. Michael Imperioli is a believably likeable guy who takes the hero role, and Ringwald is perfect as a bitchy, ambitious writer. Her scenes with Kane are among the best in the film.

Office Killer is just a little too funny to be truly menacing, and the jabs at office culture were pretty careworn even in 1997, when the film came out. But Sherman’s visual compositions and some highly entertaining performances and death scenes make this film one worth checking out.

  • Joseph "Jon" Lanthier spoke:
    19th/05/2009 to 3:05 pm

    I sorta read “at” this review rather than actually reading it, because I’ve been meaning to check “Office Killer” out as well…however, your points about Sherman’s inimitable elan both here and in the older write-up are quite dead-on. I’m fairly ignorant when it comes to photographers, but the visceral enigma of seeing a Sherman for the first time is similar, I think, to the one some of Warhol’s work provokes: it’s like being stuck at a pop culture crossroads and being pulled both ways at once.
    Any-hoo…did you happen to catch the doc “Guest of Cindy Sherman” that made the rounds earlier this year? It’s about Sherman’s relationship with a local art-house barnacle who self-destructs after realizing that his contributions to the art world are pitiful compared to that of his tentative lover. It’s worth seeing, even if it becomes grating at times. I did a write-up in Slant about it, if you’ll pardon the self-advertisement.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/05/2009 to 3:31 pm

    Thanks, “Jon,” for your comments. I heard about that doc and wanted to see it, but alas, it never made it here to Chicago (or at least, I never saw the notice if it did). Perhaps it will be in the offing for later this year. I would see it if only because of Sherman’s involvement.
    I do think Sherman has that Warhol impact, though her later “apocalyptic” works are much more difficult. I am a fan of pop art and believe Sherman was/is one of its leading practitioners.

  • bill r. spoke:
    20th/05/2009 to 10:56 am

    I also read “at” this, because I’ve had this film in the back of my mind for a long time, and I didn’t want to spoil anything for myself, but this:
    Office Killer is just a little too funny to be truly menacing
    …worries me. Look, I love Shaun of the Dead as much as the next guy, but comedy/horror is a subgenre that’s become so ubiquitous that it’s threatening to consume genuine horror. Adding insult to injury is that fact that most comedy/horror just ain’t funny. Maybe this one is, and I’ll check it out, but still…humph!

  • Pat spoke:
    20th/05/2009 to 12:29 pm

    Marilyn –
    I got interested in Sherman after seeing some of it at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art last summer. Wasn’t aware of this film, but would defnitely like to check it out. It sounds like she got a pretty good cast.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/05/2009 to 1:17 pm

    Bill – This isn’t a terrific film, but I have to say that it is funny, and the murders are worth the price of admission.
    Pat – I saw an MCA exhibit of her work maybe 6 years ago. She’s one of their favorite artists, too.

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