When remembering ’90s workplace comedies, Clerks and Office Space immediately come to mind — the two classics are admittedly dark, but the lesser-known Office Killer is easily more so. The aforementioned male-centric movies find humor in their places of business, whereas Cindy Sherman’s hidden gem deals with the horrors of soul-sucking corporate hell and how it’ll kill you if you let it.
At the start of the movie, Carol Kane’s mousy character Dorine Douglas states in the opening narration that the most important rule at her employer Constant Consumer is to “get the job done.” This is ironic considering she’s just been downsized to part-time after being a loyal and diligent copyeditor for sixteen years. But being the timid person she is, Dorine accepts her demotion with no fuss. For now, at least. The worst part about the reduction in hours, pay, and benefits is Dorine now has to spend more time with her elderly and sick mother while also not being able to provide for her like before. It’s very likely some resentment is happening here as the mother isn’t upholding her half of the traditional parent-child relationship where she provides and Dorine receives.
Everything changes when Dorine is summoned to work late one night by her coworker Gary (David Thornton) who needs her help fixing some equipment. When he’s then killed in a freak accident, Dorine does the unthinkable and takes the corpse home rather than calling the authorities. This is the start of her slow but eventual break from reality.
The environment at Constant Consumer magazine isn’t exactly peaceful or nurturing. As the office manager Norah (Jeanne Tripplehorn) butts heads with her superior Virginia (Barbara Sukowa), Molly Ringwald’s character Kim is suspicious of all the weirdness happening under their noses. Gary going M.I.A. is what sets off Kim‘s one-woman pursuit of the truth and how Dorine is connected to it. Being the sympathetic and more reasonable of the two, Norah discounts Kim‘s paranoia and tries to befriend the misunderstood and oppressed Dorine.
In the meantime, Dorine has turned into quite the spree killer as she’s taken more lives since dumping Gary‘s body in her basement. Her sudden transformation has more to do with her taking back her power rather than just acting on a homicidal whim. Her coworkers by and large don’t respect Dorine or what all she does unless it benefits them. With Virginia and Norah often exerting themselves to show who’s boss, Dorine discovers her own way of regaining her identity.
Director Cindy Sherman’s rise to recognition was her acclaimed photography influenced by horror. Audiences can discern her past profession in Office Killer as there is an emphasis on fashion and color when needing to address the main characters’ personalities. The garishly clothed Kim overdresses for such a drab workplace; Norah is more conservative, pink, and soft. Meanwhile, Virginia is decked in leather and looking as witchlike as possible to denote her power over everyone. Then there’s Dorine whose geeky wardrobe seems contemporary, but according to Dahlia Schweitzer’s book Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer: Another Kind of Monster, the director and the costume designer made sure their de facto villain had a “very insular, vulnerable look” for the time. It’s worth noting how Dorine‘s appearance positively changes following her kills. Prior, she was meek and hid behind oversized glasses until literally letting her hair down and removing her “armor.” This all contrasts with Norah‘s own decline in both authority over Dorine and control in the office as her typically neat presentation becomes unkempt.
When deciding the genre of Office Killer, it’s best to remember the crossover effect between horror and comedy. Or in this case, dark comedy seeing as this is a movie about a maltreated employee going around killing her coworkers and anyone else she feels like cutting open. The humor isn’t necessarily found in the vicious murders no matter how absurd and artful they may seem. What really cracks a reluctant smile is the audacity of the story. The general tone of the film is irreverent because Sherman’s film makes light of somewhat serious subject matter; the female-dominated magazine team here infights rather than helps one another to succeed in an otherwise overly masculine profession. Finally, Dorine then takes the concept of “cutthroat” far too seriously as a means of recouping what’s all been taken from her. In retrospect, this is a horrific satire with slasher tendencies.
Office Killer should not be grouped in with other Scream copycats from the same time period as the two movies diverge when understanding the antagonists’ motives. Sherman’s film takes its own risks that pay off more than not. If someone needs a comparison in order to give this curio a view, think of it as spiritual adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel (and later movie) American Psycho. Again, though, the incentive to kill couldn’t be any more different between Dorine and someone like Patrick Bateman.
As hard as it is to obtain nowadays, Sherman’s one and only feature film is worth the hunt. Not to mention, Carol Kane is an unassuming powerhouse whose performance here is nothing short of brilliant. It’s just not every day that a movie like this comes and redefines an entire subgenre of comedies. Office Killer is clever, morbidly funny, and absolutely unsettling as it contests the practices of thankless, toxic workplaces. Films made since then have been built on similar themes, but this one was ahead of the pack.
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