Full disclosure: I may have implied I knew more about the John Waters canon than is strictly accurate in my review of Polyester. The truth is that I saw (the intentionally filthy and shocking) Pink Flamingos and Mondo Trasho in high school eleven years ago, and have randomly seen both Cry Baby and Hairspray a few times each, although even I, with my limited knowledge, know that these two are not really indicative of Waters’s body of work (a friend once told me that Cry Baby is a straightforward representation of the genre that Hairspray was meant to satirize, which seems accurate to me). I also once started watching Pecker, but the VHS broke about thirty minutes in, so I can’t speak to that movie, really. That was my entire experience with the Waters oeuvre until a few weeks ago, and I may have made some not-quite-accurate generalizations in my previous review. Feel free to point out my errors in the comments!
In the meantime, it was my pleasure to see Desperate Living, Waters’s 1977 picture starring Mink Stole as decoy protagonist Peggy Gravel. Peggy was recently released from a mental institution, and now her frayed nerves mean that she’s having trouble readjusting to family life as she shrieks and screams her way around her home until she and her housemaid Grizelda (Jean Hill) accidentally kill Peggy’s husband Bosley (George Stover, of Blood Massacre). The two of them then flee town and, after an encounter with a policeman (Turkey Joe) who forces the two women to give him their underpants and kiss him (gross), end up in a shantytown called Mortville, where many vagrants and fugitives make their home under the cruel rule of Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey), a nightmare Disney queen who forces her citizens to obey her every whim, no matter how silly or dangerous. Peggy and Grizelda take shelter in a ramshackle building–like all buildings in Mortville other than Carlotta’s palace–owned by Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe), a genderqueer former wrestler, and her sexy girlfriend Muffy St. Jacques (real life Mafia moll Liz Renay). When Carlotta’s daughter Coo-Coo (Mary Vivan Pearce) tries to run off with her lover, a garbage collector who resides within Mortville’s nudist colony, Carlotta has her guards kill the man. Peggy, who has “never found the antics of deviants to be one bit amusing,” joins Carlotta in her quest to kill all of Mortville with an unholy elixir consisting of rabies and rat urine.
Desperate Living starts off in a more objectively humorous place than the film ends, as we follow Peggy’s histrionic reaction to some normal (and some questionable) child behaviors before Grizelda smothers Bosley with her massive rear end. Once the action leaves the Gravel household, however, all sorts of horrible things happen that require a certain appreciation for filth-as-comedy. Firstly, the encounter with Sheriff Shitface is objectively disturbing, as he sexually assaults two women at gunpoint; once in Mortville, the whims of Queen Carlotta are more subdued if more deadly (forcing everyone to put their clothing on backwards and walk in reverse motion is harmless, even if her orders of execution are creepy). Still, there are a lot of laughs to be had here if you are in the right mood, and there’s also a lot of fetish fuel if you’re into that sort of thing (Ed Peranio’s striptease as Lieutenant Williams manages to be both silly
and sexy), what with all the mesh shirts and leather pants floating around. Still, this is not a movie for the weak of stomach, or anyone who would find the detachment of a vestigial phallus odious. Recommended for lovers of the weird.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond