An aging hausfrau finds hubby-murder an intoxicating sport in “The Praying Mantis,” a sleek, expertly played black comedy that’s further proof, after Florian Flicker’s offbeat thriller “Hold-Up,” that something tasty is stirring in Austria’s cottage film industry. Beautifully lensed in widescreen, and casting an ironic eye on the country’s parochial mindset, this stands a good chance at grabbing some theatrical prey beyond German-speaking territories, with festival exposure providing a good extra platform. Locally, pic hit theaters March 9.
In look and flavor, “Mantis” strongly recalls the several adaptations of German novelist Ingrid Noll’s dark comedies featuring murderous women, especially Rainer Kaufmann’s “The Pharmacist.” Paul Harather’s good-looking direction is less De Palma-ish than Kaufmann’s, but equally cinematic and well-tooled.
Christiane Hoerbiger is terrific as Trixi Jancik, a still-trim grandmother who escapes her dull home life with Siggi (Klaus Ofczarek), a model airplane enthusiast, by dressing up in elaborate duds and gambling her grocery money at the racetrack. You know the pic is not going to be your average middle-class Austrian drama when she’s spotted one day at the track by Karli (Peter Faerber), a sleazy friend of her husband’s, and she calmly gives him oral sex to ensure he’ll keep her secret.
The Mephistophelean Karli claims Siggi has 1 million shillings ($70,000) stashed away in his savings account, and Trixi, who’s just about had enough pandering to her piggish husband, poisons his favorite cake with a deadly dusting of ground-up pills. Unfortunately, Siggi’s horde turns out to be considerably less than expected, so when a tubby widower proposes to her, Trixi soon ties the knot — and puts him six feet under, too.
This should clear the way for Trixi to marry the handsome and gentlemanly country squire, Ulrich (Jan Niklas), whom she’s meanwhile met at the races. But when Ulrich mysteriously disappears, Trixi gets sidelined by an amorous advance from Julius (Udo Kier), a weirdo artist who’s into S&M at his sprawling Schloss.
There’s also the annoying problem of Karli, who’s on to her and demanding a large sum for his silence.
What could have become repetitious is saved by Hoerbiger’s wonderfully calibrated performance — slipping back and forth from grande dame to icily ruthless serial murderer, with the occasional expletive slipping from her tight lips — and Harather’s technically smooth direction, enhanced by Fabian Eder’s lensing (all deep blacks and rich colors).
Gallery of slightly exaggerated characters, all riffing on Austrian stereotypes, is played with consummate skill by the whole cast. And small setpieces — Trixi and Julius’ encounter, an afternoon tea date with the wary Karli, and the gruesomely funny disposal of one victim — maintain interest over the admirably tight running time.
Technical credits are equally smooth in all departments.