John Waters’s Honeymoon Killers

My first thought watching Leonard Kastle’s grimy black & white crime romance The Honeymoon Killers was “Surely, John Waters loves this.” Without any evidence or background context it seemed obvious to me that The Honeymoon Killers’s mix of camp excess & horrific violence was an influence on Waters’s work, especially evident in the early scene where the killers’ first mark is shown atonally singing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub. Even Martha Beck’s over-plucked eyebrows felt like a blueprint for Divine’s signature look, an over-the-top perversion of vintage bad taste in 1950s fashion. The truth is, though, that John Waters was already a fully-formed artist by the time The Honeymoon Killers was released. In fact, his film that most closely resembles Kastle’s, Multiple Maniacs, was released the very same year & already featured Divine in her full, knife-sharp-eyebrows glory. Waters’s work as more a kindred spirit than a direct descendant.

The opening credits scroll for Multiple Maniacs is framed like microfiche, as if the audience were researching old crime reports in archived newspapers. Both Waters’s film & The Honeymoon Killers were inspired by real-life serial killers (the Sharon Tate murder of the 1960s & the “Lonely Hearts killers” of the 1940s, respectively) and lean into the grim, cruel despair of those subjects. You can practically stain your fingers on the films’ cheap tabloid ink. They’re also tabloid-ready stories (one real & one fictional) because their respective killers are romantically linked & commit their crimes as a couple, turning tales of human despair into a kind of in-print soap opera. Multiple Maniacs is much freer to pursue an impossible, fantastic narrative, though, since it was merely inspired by the Sharon Tate murder (and filmed before Charles Manson’s name was even connected to that crime), branching off into its own detached-from-reality criminal fantasy. As opposed to the newlywed grifters of The Honeymoon Killers, Divine & David Lochary’s own theft & murder spree is a long-establish bond involving a traveling side show (Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions) where unsuspecting audiences are robbed at the end of each performance. Both crime/love partner relationships devolve in the same way, though; the male accomplice is caught cheating & the woman goes berserk (to Godzilla-scale effect in Multiple Maniacs).

What’s maybe not immediately apparent in either of these pictures is how that low-fi crime & grime is contrasted with high art sensibilities. Offended by the Hollywood gloss of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde, Leonard Kastle stated that with The Honeymoon Killers, “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Waters may have bested him there, setting up his own romantic crime thriller as a side show where odd-looking weirdos perform heinous acts like licking bicycle seats, shooting heroin, and homosexual kissing (!!!) to their literally captive audience’s horror. Where Waters dared to stoop lower in the unattractive details, he also aimed higher with his artistic sensibilities, especially in a scene where Divine & Mink Stole paly with anally-inserted rosary beads while reciting the Stations of the Cross, an Andrei Rublev-esque vision of Christ’s trials intercutting their lesbian foray. That surreality emerges again in an unexplained scene where Divine is raped by a giant lobster, but I fail to recall what Tarkovsky movie that might resemble. Francois Truffaut once stated that The Honeymoon Killers was his all-time favorite American film, as it was the one that most closely approximated the handheld immediacy of the French New Wave. One has to wonder if he ever got to see the less widely-distributed Multiple Maniacs before making that claim (or if it would have made a difference).

Even if Waters was more a contemporary than a devotee of Kastle’s, he surely loved The Honeymoon Killers all the same. In an interview with NPR, Waters recommended The Honeymoon Killers as a personal favorite, quipping, “With internet dating today, this certainly could happen again.” What I’d most like to know at this point is whether that appreciation was mutual. Did Kastle ever see Multiple Maniacs? Would he enjoy it if he had?  Waters’s own aversion to Hollywood phonies & manicured beauty would at least indicate that Kastle may have appreciated it more than Bonnie & Clyde, but having fun with a Dreamlanders-era Waters film would require a little more extreme disposition than just that. It’s subjective which film is the better of the pair, but Multiple Maniacs is undeniably the more extreme.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our examination of Martin Scorsese’s involvement with the film, and last week’s look at its mid-2000s Hollywood-phony equivalent.

-Brandon Ledet

Dawn Davenport as the Ultimate Divine Showcase

It’s almost inarguable that the most iconic performance from Divine, the greatest drag queen of all time, was her role as Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos. John Waters may have later scored a wider cultural impact with Hairspray (his last collaboration with Divine before her death), but if you ask anyone to describe Divine as a persona, it’s the yellow hair, red flamenco dress, and curbside dog shit of Pink Flamingos that most readily defines her in the public conscience. As gloriously filthy as Pink Flamingos is within the John Waters pantheon, though, it’s not the most fully illustrative showcase for Divine’s talents as an onscreen presence. Babs is a kind of static constant throughout Pink Flamingos—hilarious, but unchanging in her filthy, filthy ways. It’s that film’s follow-up, Female Trouble, that really allows the full spectrum of Divine’s version of defiant American femininity to shine. In Female Trouble, Divine charts the moral corrosion of a high school teen turned mass murderer over a decade’s worth of increasingly despicable criminal acts. Pink Flamingos might be Divine’s most recognizable achievement in establishing a tone & defining her look, but Dawn Davenport is her greatest creation as a cinematic performer.

After signing the film’s theme song herself (a preview of her disco career to come), Divine begins Female Trouble as one of the 1960s hair-hoppers Waters lovingly profiled in Hairspray. Dawn Davenport is a bratty teenage delinquent. She smokes in school bathrooms, sneaks eating meatball sandwiches during class lectures, and responds to concerns about schoolwork with sentiments like, “Fuck homework. Who cares if we fail?” This attitude sets her up for failure at a traditional American lifestyle, something that becomes no longer sustainable after her parents refuse to buy the one Christmas present she demands because, “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels.” After destroying the Norman Rockwell Christmas tableau of her parents’ home like Godzilla tearing through Tokyo, Dawn Davenport hits the open road as a teenage runaway. She attempts a mundane life that does not suit her: raising children, waiting tables, gossiping at the beauty salon. The most alive Dawn appears as a young adult woman is when she’s sweatily stripping as a go-go dancer and abusing her hyperactive daughter, both verbally and physically. The first half of Female Trouble is a grimy portrait of American femininity, one frustrated with the prison of boredom & tedium that plagues well-behaved women, especially single mothers. The increasingly violent crimes she commits throughout the film are selfish, hateful, and morally grotesque, but they’re also a political rejection of traditionalist gender roles she’s expected to conform to at all ages in her perversely American life.

The poster for Female Trouble “warns” of (read: promises) “scenes of extraordinary perversity,” the kinds of onscreen stunts both Divine & Waters were largely known for, if not only because of the shit-eating stunt that concludes Pink Flamingos. When Dawn Davenport introduces herself to strangers in the film, she explains “I’m a thief & a shitkicker and I’d like to be famous.” She achieves this fame the way only a thief & a shitkicker would: by impressing the public with the daringness of her crimes. As an adult criminal, Dawn finds wealthy, erudite patrons (David Lochary & Mary Vivian Pearce) who fund her criminal activities for the artistry that they truly are, fanatically believing that “crime enhances one’s beauty.” It’s an ingenious setup that provides Divine a stage to perform various criminal stunts, including smashing her overgrown child (a deranged Mink Stole) with a dining room chair, warring with her leather fetishist neighbor (Edith Massey) to the point of imprisoning her in a birdcage & axing off her hand, and breaking prison rules by entering a long-term lesbian relationship while locked up. In-story, this absurdist crime spree climaxes when a scarred-up Dawn with a protopunk haircut locks a literally captive audience into a crowded nightclub for her Cavalcade of Filth routine and fires a gun directly at them, indiscriminately. If crime enhances beauty, this is Dawn Davenport at her most gorgeous, something she announces upfront in the line “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t even stand it myself.” The bizarre truth is that the biggest stunt in the film occurs long before the Cavalcade of Filth, though, when Dawn Davenport is still a teenage delinquent. Hitchhiking away from her destroyed parents’ home on Christmas morning, Dawn is picked up by a monstrous drunk played by Glenn Milstead (out of his Divine drag). Upstaging the earlier stunt where Divine is raped by a giant lobster in Multiple Maniacs, Divine effectively rapes herself in this scene. The details are horrendous: a roadside mattress, shit-stained tighty whities, felching. It’s a truly hideous display, a stunt that could only be topped by watching Divine perform mundane domestic work in later titles like Polyester & Hairspray. It’s this hitchhiking sequence where Divine truly outdoes herself (by literally doing herself, appropriately).

Desperate Living is my personal favorite John Waters film, but it’s one that Divine backed out of before production. I’m sure she could have only improved the film with her immaculately trashy presence, but I doubt even that performance would have bested the all-encompassing showcase Dawn Davenport afforded her. Divine’s performances as Babs Johnson, Edna Turblad, and Francine Fishpaw are all flawless, iconic filth, but they only afford her one comedic angle per picture. Dawn Davenport, on the other hand, allows Divine to transform from teenage reprobate/petty criminal to full-blown Charles Manson maniac in 90 wild minutes, taunting her audience from the perch of an electric chair with the speech, “I’d like to thank all those wonderful people who were kind enough to read about me in the newspaper and watch me on the television news shows. Without all of you, my career would have never gotten this far. It is you that I murdered for and it is you that I die for.” Female Trouble affords Divine a stage to perform her most gloriously fucked up stunts on celluloid, then directly comments on our fascination with those wicked deeds and with crime as entertainment in general. More importantly, though, it allows her to perform the full spectrum of American femininity as, to borrow the title of a Lifetime movie, Wife-Mother-Murderer in the post-hippie grime of the mid-1970s. Dawn Davenport is multiple generations & evolutions of the misbehaving woman, a perfect template for Divine to perform a full floor show of varying proto-punk looks & sneering femme attitudes. She may have starred in a few better movies, but few performances ever served her better as a top bill entertainer & the center of attention. Besides, where else are you going to watch Divine fuck herself? It’s impossible to overvalue the novelty of that experience.

-Brandon Ledet

All About Evil (2010)

Typically, movies made by drag queens require a little good will & benefit of the doubt from their audience. I’ve written positive reviews of dirt cheap drag productions like Vegas in Space & Hurricane Bianca in the past, but my forgiving love of drag as an artform likely made me a little lenient in discerning their merits, just like how my love of pro wrestling can lead to positive reviews of widely-hated films like Ready to Rumble. I’d like to distinguish All About Evil from that bias. Written & directed by infamous San Francisco drag queen Peaches Christ (under her boy name, Joshua Grannell), All About Evil is a genuinely well-made participation in B-movie schlock tradition. The film features performances from legitimate camp cinema players (and friends of Grannell’s, presumably): Natasha Lyonnne, Mink Stole, and Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson, an admirably unholy trinity. While Peaches Christ appears in the film in full drag (as herself!), the story isn’t especially concerned with the artform; it’s a natural part of the San Francisco setting, nothing more. The production values are about on par with most drag cinema indies (I’m thinking specifically of outsider art made by drag queens, not major productions like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert or To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar), but its ambition aims much higher than most camp comedies of its ilk. Most importantly, tough, All About Evil displays a deep, knowledgeable love for the horror cinema refuse it imitates & pays homage to. As the screen fills with references to Blood Feast, The Wasp Woman, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, The Pit and the Pendulum, and so on, All About Evil’s midnight movie credentials are beyond legitimized and it transcends its drag cinema pedigree to become something else I’m strongly biased to enjoy: over-the-top horror schlock.

Although its title is a play on the name of a Bette Davis picture and there are plenty throwaway references to other cult horror works, All About Evil most resembles the Roger Corman classic Bucket of Blood in its basic plot. Natasha Lyonne (telegraphing her later re-emergence in weirdo horror cheapies like Antibirth & #horror) stars as a mentally unstable librarian who inherits a repertory movie theater form her deceased father. Her business struggles to stay afloat until security footage of her murdering her father’s shrill widow is projected on the screen for an unsuspecting midnight audience. The gore hounds in the crowd mistake the violent act as a fictional work of outsider art, commending her for creating a few found-footage subgenre they call “surveillance slaughter” and eagerly awaiting her next homemade short film. She continues to build her local legacy from there by committing more murders for the camera, often punishing her victims for faux pas like disparaging horror as an artform or using their cellphones in the theater. There might be vague correlations to be made between horror audiences’ insatiable bloodlust and the film’s movie theater goths mistaking murder for art, but the premise is mostly an excuse to have fun while celebrating horror as a communal joy. In true drag queen tradition, Lyonne’s short film slashers are given ridiculous pun titles like “Slasher in the Rye” & “Gore and Peace.” Popcorn machines & library books are fashioned into ridiculous murder props. The gore flows freely in practical effects indulgences instead of settling for the cheaper, lazier route of CG blood splatter. All About Evil is a genuine specimen of gleeful horror fandom. Like with the TV persona of bit part actor Elvira and the stage performances of Peaches Christ herself, it’s always wonderful when that quality can convincingly intersect with the world & art of drag. For an enthusiastic fan of both like myself, it’s all too easy to get swept up in the joy of that combo.

The one thing that tempers my appreciation of All About Evil is its choice of protagonist. Instead of detailing Lyonne’s mental unraveling from her own perspective, the film is told mostly from the POV of a teenage horror bro who arrives on the ground floor as one of her biggest fans. He makes sense as a choice for inserting an audience surrogate into the narrative, but like in Joe Dante’s embarrassing Burying the Ex misfire, can often unintentionally display some of the fandom’s worst macho tendencies. His relationship with a horror-hating Feminist Nag is particularly troubling, especially in an exchange where he mansplains to her that Lyonne’s deranged killer is “important” because there’s (supposedly) never been a great female horror director before. The statement is, at best, misinformed, devaluing the the cult classic films of women like Stephanie Rothman, Doris Wishman, Jackie Kong, Roberta Findlay, and Mary Lambert. It’s even more cringeworthy once you consider the fact that Cindy Sherman’s Carol Kane slasher Office Killer is by far a superior example of the exact mousy-homebody-turned-vengeful-killer aesthetic All About Evil aims towards; a woman has essentially made a better version of the movie that’s telling its audience no woman has ever made a truly great horror film before. It’s a frustrating claim to stomach. Office Killer also didn’t feel the need to tell its story through the eyes of a goth bro, keeping its perspective solidly anchored to Kane even as she descended into gory madness (which is partly why it’s a better film). I wouldn’t have been so taken aback by the character’s misguided horror bro mindset if it weren’t so clearly meant to be a mouthpiece for the audience. All About Evil is such a gleeful celebration of cult horror subculture (and women in general) otherwise that it was disappointing such a misguided choice made it to the screen in the process.

Being mildly offended is honestly just as natural to drag culture as bad puns & glitter, though, so I wasn’t too bothered with All About Evil’s slightly off-center feminist politics. It also helps that I saw the film in one of the best possible environments: with Peaches Christ present for a Q&A in the back room of a local bar. The screening was preceded by a few B-movie friendly drag performances (including a Female Trouble-themed act from fellow Krewe Divine member CeCe V Deminthe) and was supervised by local drag workshop instructor Vinsantos (a friend of Peaches Christ’s who also provided the film’s low-fi score). The entire evening was reminiscent of old school art cinema screenings, where weirdos would pile into unconventional spaces like bookstores & dive bars to struggle to hear avant-garde experiments over the roar of a nearby whirring projector. In this case the projector had an inaudible, digital-era hum, but the environment was still the same. The similarities between the drunken drag enthusiasts in that barroom and the gore-thirsty goths calling for the peril of Natasha Lyonne’s victims onscreen were apparent & plentiful. I’m much more suspicious of that environment’s effect on my enthusiasm for the film than I am with my general drag cinema leniency. Still, Peaches Christ delivered an impressive love letter to campy, gore-drenched schlock in All About Evil. The film was clearly a blast to make, but far from the lazy, self-indulgent hangout it easily could have been (and many microbudget horror comedies are). I’d without question recommend it to anyone with a voracious love of B-movie history, whether or not they’re familiar with Peaches Christ as a real-life persona or drag as an artform. That’s more than I can say for pictures like Vegas in Space, as much I as I love those for their own sake.

-Brandon Ledet

Serial Mom (1994)

Mention Serial Mom to a suitably knowledgeable crowd, and you’ll hear a lot of, “Oh yeah, that was his [Waters’s] last…” and then some trailing off. His last great film? His last successful film? Depending upon whom you ask, both are true, or neither. Whatever your thoughts on it, although it’s part of his post-Hairspray mainstream canon, it’s pure John Waters, even if it does sacrifice a great deal of his notable filth (and maybe picks up some cohesion along the way).

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the perfect wife and mother in a squeaky-clean Cleaver-esque family, as noted in the text itself. Her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), son Chip (Matthew Lillard), and daughter Misty (Rikki Lake) all dote on her and are doted upon in turn. Everything is a picture of idealized domesticity, except that Beverly is severely mentally ill and holds intense grudges against those she perceives as having slighted her. She acts out relatively harmlessly at first, making obscene phone calls to her neighbor Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole, acting against type), but quickly escalating to murder when Chip’s teacher claims at a parent-teacher meeting that he thinks the boy’s interest in horror film is affecting his academic work. Once she crosses that line, she falls down the slippery slope at a rapid pace, snowballing into murdering of Misty’s crush Carl (Lonnie Horsey) for rejecting Misty and bringing another girl (our old friend Traci Lords) to a local swap meet, as well as a various others who are impolite or rude. This leads up to a trial of great spectacle, in which Beverly represents herself and discredits various witnesses and earns the sympathy of the jury, including Patty Hearst (credited as Juror #8), although the films ends on an ambiguous note about the ultimate fate of Beverly (and her family).

As always with Waters, this film is hilarious, with touches of absolute comic genius. Undersung comedian Justin Whalin has a minor role (and a major scene) in the film, and Patricia Dunnock is consistently fantastic as Chip’s (girl?)friend Birdie. There’s a lot to recommend here, but I hesitate to go into more detail for fear of ruining the fun for those who have yet to experience the comic genius. If I had one note to give, it’s that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film; Turner is phenomenal in this film (that “pussywillow” scene alone manages to be both pure art and pure comedy), but she does play Beverly with such an earnest sincerity that, at times, the sympathy for such an obviously unwell woman supersedes humor, but not always.

After all, isn’t Serial Mom the more palatable version of Female Trouble? Or, more accurately, doesn’t (Female Trouble + Polyester) – Desperate Living = Serial Mom? I’m pretty sure my math is right here. Like Dawn Davenport before her, Beverly Sutphin goes on a killing spree and ultimately stands trial for her crimes. But whereas Dawn got the chair, Beverly, lovable insane Beverly, gets away with her crimes (maybe). Dawn gives a pre-execution monologue like she’s getting an Oscar; Beverly’s story is transformed into a TV miniseries and victims of her crimes are willing to sign away their story rights. Both films are chasing a thesis about the celebrity of crime, but Serial Mom does it through the eye of someone who’s seen twenty years of growing media attention and the resultant dilution of public outrage into ironic (and perhaps unironic) antiheroism, not to mention someone who crossed the Rubicon into the mainstream (for better or worse). What I’m saying is this: you can get Kathleen Turner and America’s Darling (D.A.) Sam Waterston into a movie wherein a man gets stabbed in the back with a fire poker and his liver has to be removed from said implement comically, but not a film in which a chicken is crushed to death by fucking. John Waters couldn’t make Female Trouble or Pink Flamingos in 1994, and maybe that’s a good thing; it gave him the opportunity to tackle a similar concept in two different ways, and although the size of an audience isn’t the sole factor in determining success, it can’t be said that Serial Mom didn’t reach a larger audience. What (if anything) it lost along the way is worth the sacrifice to create a John Waters movie you can (almost) watch with your mom.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A Dirty Shame (2004)

As loudly & proudly as I’ll proclaim John Waters the greatest filmmaker/artist/human being of all time now, he was even more important to me when I was an ornery high school student in the early 00s. I owe the entirety of my sense of humor, camp, and love of “bad” movies to teenage introductions to works like Pink Flamingos & Serial Mom, which shook me out of my nü metal shithead phase into something much sillier. That’s why it was a huge deal when Waters released a new film in theaters the summer after I graduated. A Dirty Shame was a return to form for Waters, whose previous two efforts, Pecker & Cecil B. Demented, were a little too mired in arts world self reflection & nü metal era creative doldrums to match the singular eccentricity of his earlier works. With A Dirty Shame, The Pope of Trash figured out how to re-energize his voice in a cinematic climate where once taboo, over-the-top gross-out comedies had become the norm, thanks to success stories like The Farrelly Brothers & the Jackass crew. He did so by returning to the sex-obsessed comedies of his youth and the suburban-invasion narratives of his mid-career mainstream successes like Hairspray & Polyester, crafting a kind of career-retrospective overview of his cinematic aesthetic. A Dirty Shame has only become more valuable over time for that redemptive act of career-spanning review & revitalization, if not only because it might very well be the last film Waters even directs.

Tracey Ullman stars as prudish Baltimore housewife Sylvia Stickles, whose calm suburban neighborhood, her daughter included, is seemingly being taken over by horned-up “sex addicts.” As more & more fetishists appear out of thin air and even the squirrels & shrubbery in her neighborhood begin to titter with teenage-level horniness, taunting her and other “neuters” with lewd acts, this phenomenon appears to be a supernatural event. It turns out to be more than supernatural; it’s divine. Johnny Knoxville soon appears as a Christ-like, miracle-performing figurehead with a devoted, DTF cult of apostles behind him, turning A Dirty Shame into a religious allegory so blatant & over-the-top it would make Aronofsky blush. Sylvia Stickles joins their ranks when she’s struck with a freak accident concussion that leads to a kind of religious epiphany . . . in her clitoris. Along with her fellow concussion-survivors/fetishists, she becomes a devotee to the Second Cumming as a self-identified “cunnilingus bottom,” waging war on the Neuters of her neighborhood & going on a religious pilgrimage to discover “a brand new sex act,” which is feared to be a myth. As the apostles barrel closer to the promised Resurrsexion, their horniness devolves from combative exhibitionism to zombie-level mayhem & sexual terror. Waters builds the cartoonishness of this societal meltdown to a point where it has to accommodate David Hasselhoff’s frozen feces, CGI squirrels headbutting each other in ecstasy, corpses rising from the dead, and a star-filled sky slathered in divine semen in its (literal) climax. It’s even sillier than it sounds.

Of course, like all John Waters films, A Dirty Shame survives more on the outrageous moments of individual flourishes than it does on strength of its plot. Outside a couple shots of flaccid dicks, the film does nothing especially vulgar to earn its NC-17 rating. In fact, it’s arguably a fairly tame entry into the modern sex comedy canon. It is irreverently aggressive in its sex positivity, though, stocking its legion of horned-up side characters with bears, sploshers, rimmers, adult babies, masturbation addicts, and a go-go dancing Selma Blair with Russ Meyer-proportioned CGI tits. Character names like Ursula Udders, Roddy the Rimmer, and Fat Fuck Frank mingle with intentionally shoddy CGI and intensely punny one-liners like “I’m Viagravated and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” to establish joke-a-second ZAZ rhythms that call back to the playful energy of Waters’s early, Dreamlanders era. The only real difference is that the film is more dedicated to silliness than shock value and outside of appearances from longtime collaborators Mink Stole & Patty Hearst, most of the traditional Waters crew has been replaced with the likes of Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak, and Tracey Ullman (who’s essentially doing her best Amy Sedaris in the role). Waters even advances his visual aesthetic here, integrating a lyrical use of Ed Wood-esque B-movie ephemera to visualize the film’s horned-up concussion sequences and fully embracing the drive-in horror movie trappings those concussed transformations imply.

Waters has long been teasing the production of a queer-themed Christmas comedy titled Fruitcake. As the years roll on and his struggle to secure the full funding he desires for the project stagnates, it seems increasingly likely that A Dirty Shame will be his final feature as a director. Of course, I’d love to see Fruitcake completed & distributed to as wide of an audience as possible; every Waters film I’ve ever seen in the theater (I’m up to eight now!) always plays better with a crowd. I’ve come to peace with the likelihood that A Dirty Shame will be his final filmmaking triumph, however. It’s a fittingly enthusiastic swan song that encapsulates both the wildly idiosyncratic energy a young & angry Waters gifted the world and the mainstream raunch comedy aesthetic he inadvertently pioneered. At the very least, it saved him from concluding his catalog on the downbeat of his creative lowpoint, the two late 90s arts scene comedies that preceded it. A Dirty Shame brought Waters back to sex cinema as an elder statesman of Filth. We we’re lucky to have seen him shine in all his smutty glory one final time, even if his sense of shock value had become an unlikely kind of cultural norm.

-Brandon Ledet

Pink Flamingos (1972)

Although it’s the title that’s immediately conjured whenever you mention the name of my favorite filmmaker, I had somehow allowed Pink Flamingos to slip in my estimation over the years. Hairspray may be John Waters’s most popular film (and thus, according to Waters himself, his most subversive), but it’s arguable that Pink Flamingos is his most iconic. If a casual cult movie fan hears John Waters’s name, Pink Flamingos will usually be their go-to reference point, typically followed by an offhand remark about Divine, the greatest drag queen who ever lived, eating dog shit in its infamous epilogue. When I started a Divine-inspired Mardi Gras krewe with fellow Swampflix contributors earlier this year, we relied heavily on the film’s icon status to establish our visual aesthetic; we paraded a flamingo-adorned flag pole and handed out fake piles of shit as our signature throws. Still, my tone when discussing Pink Flamingos has become increasingly dismissive & apologetic in recent years. I love Waters’s films so much (with Desperate Living & Serial Mom being personal favorites) that I feel an ingratiating need to downplay his most monstrously juvenile work’s significance in his ouevre so as not to scare people off from giving his other, less shock value-dependent works a proper chance. After seeing Pink Flamingos‘s trial run predecessor Multiple Maniacs at last year’s New Orleans Film Fest and recently re-watching the trashterpiece on the big screen for the third or fourth time in my life with an appreciatively rowdy crowd at the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art (on my birthday!), I’ve been forced to reassess that apologetic stance. Basically, what I’ve been saying is bullshit. Pink Flamingos is a perfect work of fine art trash cinema, one of the most hilarious comedies ever made.

Much like in Multiple Maniacs, Divine plays herself in a boisterous love letter to her own drag persona. Instead of running an illegal sideshow, however, she’s embroiled in a tabloid-documented war for the title of The Filthiest Person Alive. She has a fairly solid claim to that throne too. Living in a secluded trailer with her two sexual deviant children and her egg-addicted mother (a top-of-her-game Edith Massey), Divine cultivates a kind of Quentin Crisp celebrity; she’s famous for being famous. This infuriates a married couple who are her only true competition for the Filthiest People Alive title, Raymond & Connie Marble (David Lochary & Mink Stole, respectively). The Marbles go out of their way to cultivate a reputation for Filth, forcing hitchhiking teens into slavery & impregnation so they can sell the resulting babies to lesbian couples on the black market. They taunt Divine directly by sending her human shit in the mail & reporting her birthday party celebrations to the police (who the revelers immediately eat & kill, naturally). Eventually, these pretenders to the throne’s “attacks on her divinity” get to be too much for Divine to ignore and the two factions come head to head in a race to see who can execute whom first. Of course, plot is entirely besides the point in this kind of bad taste comedy, which more or less extends the sideshow structure of Multiple Maniacs for a second, more depraved runthrough. Inane conversations about eggs, Divine shoplifting beef under her dress, and even the infamous dogshit conclusion all amount to more than anything that could be considered a plot point. It’s essentially a loosely connected strand of sketch comedy vignettes, a hangout film of the damned.

Waters was still a young, hungry filmmaker where he made Pink Flamingos. You can feel that green, eager-to-shock energy in his need to wear his influences on his sleeve. Movie posters adorn the walls of the Marble home; Russ Meyer’s fetish for classic cars & giant tits are echoed openly at every opportunity; the theme from the Jayne Mansfield film The Girl Can’t Help It soundtracks the shoplifting scene at the deli. Still, Pink Flamingos feels astoundingly ahead of its time considering the hippie-flavored Free Love vibes that dominated most counterculture in the early 70s. Waters’s mean freak proto-punk monstrosities, with their leopard print clothes & brightly dyed hair, are a total anomaly. Sometimes that reverence for exploitation cinema shock value can devolve into an amoral ugliness, such as in a hard-to-watch rape scene that involves the real-life death of a chicken (that the crew reportedly grilled & ate after the shoot) & a cry to free one of the key members of The Manson Family. Mostly, though, the so-called Dreamlander crew’s pre-punk ethos is expressed in transcendently silly, aggressively progressive ways: singing buttholes, go-nowhere diatribes about eggs, trans women flashing the camera, a D.I.Y.-flavored disinterest in formalism or good taste. Every time I see Pink Flamingos projected for an audience there are just as many disgusted walkouts as there are people laughing themselves to tears. As the film will be half a century old in just a few years and Waters’s penchant for Filth has been filtered through the mainstream thanks to decendents like the Jackass crew & the Farrelly Brothers, that’s no small feat. The film is just as funny, filthy, grotesque, and vividly punk now as it’s ever been.

The NOMA screening I recently attended merely just projected the same DVD transfer of Pink Flamingos I own at home (on a significantly smaller screen than where it usually plays at The Prytania). Yet, seeing it with that disgusted/delighted art museum crowd was an essential reminder of exactly how transgressive (and gut-bustingly funny) this nasty slice of trash cinema still feels with a modern audience. I need to stop downplaying its place in the Waters ouevre. Pink Flamingos is damn funny and, if punk still means anything culturally in the 2010s, damn important.

-Brandon Ledet

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

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I’ve seen a few John Waters classics like Desperate Living & Pink Flamingos projected on the big screen before, usually with a midnight crowd, but I’ve only had two experiences watching his work for the very first time in a proper movie theater: 2004’s A Dirty Shame & the 2016 restoration of his 1970 forgotten gem Multiple Maniacs. Surely, there’s a bias factor that should be considered when reviewing a work from your favorite director/artist/human being after experiencing it for the first time large & loud with a receptive film fest crowd. My personal devotion to Waters aside, though, Multiple Maniacs is still an excellent slice of go-for-broke shlock cinema. A smaller, arguably nastier provocation than Pink Flamingos, it answers a question I’m not sure I ever would’ve dreamed to ask: what if John Waters made a horror film? It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional “actors,” but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.

I guess I should clarify up front exactly what I mean when I call Multiple Maniacs a horror film. Unlike the subversive horror comedy leanings of Serial Mom, this is horror in the way titles like Spider Baby & Mudhoney qualify. It’s a grimy uncovering of an outside-of-society crew of murderous weirdos, the kind of picture that eventually lead to more conventional slasher genre space carved out by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but didn’t quite have its own established tradition at the time of its release. Waters displays no shame in his getta-load-of-this-freakshow dynamic, opening his film with a literal freakshow: Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions. A carnival barker advertises “acts against God & Nature” to entice the audience & passersby inside the tent, all while feigning mock disgust. There’s gleeful puke-eaters, bicycle seat humpers, and actual real-life homosexuals (the horror!); but the real star of the show is Divine herself, Waters’s most infamous collaborator and, arguably, the greatest drag queen of all time. Divine’s freakshow act is simply her own fabulous being. She holds her audience at gunpoint, bullies all of her employees, and lounges nude in the mirror to give full reverence to her own beauty & divinity. Her turbulent romance with David Lochary’s carnival barker, with its cop-killing violent streak & dual indulgences in adultery, drives the isolated freakshow into the general public, where Multiple Maniacs turns into a legitimate monster movie. Not only does Divine herself transform into an inhuman monster with a formidable body count, the film also makes room for an appearance from a giant monster movie-style lobster just for the sake of it.

It’s tempting to believe that this early glimpse at John Waters’s regular crew of degenerate collaborators, The Dreamlanders, would mostly benefit the already-converted. Surely it’s exciting to see these weirdos in their artistic infancy. Edith Massey seems particularly fresh & unpolished in her natural habitat as a barkeep. It’s weird to know that David Lochary’s look as Raymond Marble in Pink Flamingos was something he exuded all the time. Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, and Divine are all playing prototypes of the characters who would later be cartoonishly exaggerated in other Dreamlander collaborations, with Divine’s monstrous transformation in particular being explained in-film with the line “Every minute she’s alive she’s getting worse & worse!” Waters even draws conscious attention to this “cavalcade of perversions” by naming the characters after their real life counterparts: David, Mink, Cookie, Edith, etc. There’s no doubt that longtime fans of the director’s work would get a kick out of this overlooked gem’s babyfaced cast that newcomers might not tend to care about in any particular way. However, the film does have a recognizable appeal as a genre film artifact even outside of that context and it’s a dynamic largely due to its nature as deliberately campy horror.

Seeing Waters’s “cavalcade of perversions” at work so early in his career is valuable both to fans & newcomers alike because it calls attention to the fact that The Dreamlanders were straight up punks in the era of hippies & suburban sprawl. The surf rock soundtrack, beat-up Cadillacs, crossdressing, and leopard print get-ups of Multiple Maniacs construct a rock & roll nightmare incongruous with its then-current counterculture of hippie niceness. This is a playfully mean movie, one crawling with cartoonish rape humor, gleeful violence, and the single most blasphemous use of a prayer rosary imaginable. It’s no wonder that in Divine’s final moments of mania she’s treated like a Godzilla-esque monster complete with fleeing crowds & an armed military response. The world wasn’t quite ready for her particular brand of perversion and her very existence reads on the screen as a criminal act, one amplified by the film’s microfilm-reminiscent opening credits scroll. That shock value even holds power today, somehow, as I’ve never attended a John Waters screening that didn’t inspire at least one walk-out. Even in a film festival environment there were three hurried walk-outs during Multiple Maniacs. I don’t know if that speaks more to Waters’s reputation as The Hairspray Guy, the aggressive specificity of his sense of humor, or his unique ability to push buttons, but it’s honestly kind of incredible that any film from 1970, before the grindhouse heights of drive-in grotesquery, can disgust people into fleeing in horror in 2016, especially one this unabashedly silly.

Waters is obviously an inexperienced filmmaker in Multiple Maniacs. He catches his players wildly out of focus, he wears his influences proudly on his sleeve (including a poster for Russ Meyer’s Vixen!), he relies heavily on details like nudity & (absurdly unrealistic) rape scenarios for easy shock value, etc. However, the film holds up surprisingly well as a proto-punk provocation, maybe even one with wider commercial appeal than the more consistently celebrated Pink Flamingos, due to its genre thrills as an eccentric horror comedy of sorts. I’ll likely have very few more chances to catch one of his films for the very first time in a public audience environment & this one did not disappoint in the slightest. In an ideal world all of Waters’s back catalog would get this careful restoration treatment.

-Brandon Ledet

Desperate Living (1977)

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fourstar

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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

Polyester (1981)

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Polyester was not John Waters’ first feature, but it was the first to garner any significant amount of mainstream interest. Following his first forays into feature films with Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, Waters worked on what he dubbed the Trash Trilogy, consisting of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, and Desperate Living. To say that these films pushed the envelope and seemed design to induce faintness and nausea is an understatement; to say that they were in poor taste, or were made as an exploration of “good bad taste,” does the films’ shameless vulgarity a disservice. The films were confrontational, characterized by notoriety, and generally just gross for the sake of it.

Polyester was an altogether different animal. It still featured many of the actors who made up Waters’ “Dreamland” repertory troupe, but it features a much more linear narrative than his previous works. Taking its inspiration from films of the exploitation genre known as “women’s pictures,” especially those of Douglas Sirk, the film concerns the dissolution of the family unit of overweight matriarch Francine Fishpaw (Divine). Francine discovers that her husband Elmer (David Samson), the proprietor of an adult movie theater, is having an affair with his secretary Sandra (Mink Stole); her mother (Joni Ruth White) is an abusive cokehead obsessed with wealth and class; her daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) is sneaking out to have sex with her delinquent greaser boyfriend Bo-Bo (Stiv Bators); and her son Dexter (Ken King) is a glue-sniffing weirdo who has been skipping school in order to stomp the feet of unsuspecting women, dubbed the Baltimore Foot Stomper by the press. Her only friend is Cuddles (Edith Massey), the Fishpaw’s (possibly mentally handicapped) former housekeeper who is now quite wealthy after inheriting a tidy sum from another family for whom she once worked as a domestic servant. After her children face their own demons and become (relatively) well adjusted citizens, Francine struggles to overcome the alcoholic despair into which she has fallen, finding a new potential love in Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter).

The Baltimore of Polyester is a wondrously delirious place, full of odd characters and strange circumstances. From the nuns at the unwed mothers’ home that Lu-Lu is sent to, who force the pregnant women in their care to participate in a hayride in the middle of a thunderstorm, to the older choir woman who commandeers a bus in order to chase down the delinquents who swatted her as they drove by (ending with her stopping their escape by biting a hole in their vehicle’s tire), every person is an exaggerated caricature of reality. Hyperbole is Waters’ currency, and Polyester is one of the most accessible of his films for a mainstream audience. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the immersive experience he crafted for the movie: the original theatrical release of the film featured interactivity in the form of an “Odorama” card, with numbers appearing on screen to indicate when audience members should scratch the cards and smell the same thing that Francine does. I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse, complete with a recreation of these cards; more often than not, the scents on the card simply smell like chemicals, but that doesn’t detract from the glory of the attempt. This is a delightfully hilarious movie, and I hesitate to say more in order to ensure that you get the maximum number of laughs from it. Suffice it to say: as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, you will love this movie.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond