The Watchers

The Watchers

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Movies Of John Waters

It's fair to say that there's no film maker quite like John Waters. Dubbed 'The Pope of Trash', Waters once stated that he would consider someone throwing up in one of his movies to be equivalent to a standing ovation and- given some of the outrageous acts in some of his movies- that seems quite likely. Waters' films shock, challenge and amuse in equal measures.

He began making films in his native Baltimore back in the 1960s, starting with shorts such as Hag In A Black Leather Jacket, Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup, before trying out longer films- which he refers to as his 'atrocities'- with Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. These early films feature a group of actors- amongst them Mary Vivian Pearce, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Channing Wilroy, Susan Lowe and drag actor Divine (the pseudonym of Harris Glenn Milstead)-  who would become known as the Dreamlanders and many of whom would appear in multiple Waters movies.

It is 1972's Pink Flamingos which made Waters' name. This really is a film that needs to be seen to be believed although, as far as I know, it's not commercially available in the UK (I saw it on an import copy). It's the story of the conflict between Babs Johnson (Divine) and her dysfunctional family- travelling companion Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), chicken-loving son Crackers (Danny Mills) and egg-obsessed Mama Edie (Edith Massey)- and Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary) for the title of 'The Filthiest Person Alive'. Illegal baby-farming, a bowel movement sent through the mail and a singing anus all pale in comparison with the infamous final scene of Divine eating fresh dog faeces.

In 1974's Female Trouble, Divine plays tearaway teen Dawn Davenport who runs away from home one Christmas after not getting her cha-cha heels and falls pregnant. She raises her daughter Taffy (Mink Stole) in a dysfunctional manner and marries hairstylist Gator (Michael Potter), much to the disgust of his Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) who would rather he was gay. Gator's bosses- Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce)- believe that crime equals beauty and encourages Dawn in her criminality. This leads to murder, disfigurement and a grown woman confined in an oversized bird cage. It's a truly bizarre film but, if you just go with it, it's enjoyable (with Massey's hysterical performance a true delight). This would be David Lochary's last film with Waters- due to Lochary's spiralling drug use, he would not appear in Waters' next film and died in 1977.

The opening ten minutes of Desperate Living (1977) is undoubtedly one of the most insane starts to a film. Seeing Mink Stole's hysteria rising to a neurotic crescendo in an eminently-quotable frenzy is just brilliant. Housewife Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) and her maid Grizelda (Jean Hill) run away after Peggy's husband is killed by Grizelda sitting on him. An encounter with a perverted policeman leads the two criminals to Mortville, a shantytown for criminals and undesirables, ruled by the evil Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey) and her daughter Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce). The inhabitants of the town conspire to overthrow Carlotta but don't count on Peggy switching sides. In my opinion, the rest of the film doesn't quite match the brilliance of the first ten minutes but it's still got some marvellous parts to it. Divine was unavailable due to touring commitments.

Not only is Polyester (1981) an elegant parody of the 'women's pictures' popularised by Douglas Sirk, it also has a gimmick worthy of William Castle's B-movies: Odorama. Scratch-and-sniff cards were distributed to the audience and a number would flash on screen to indicate which panel to scratch next. Downtrodden housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) has a keen sense of smell and a troubled life- her husband is having an affair with his secretary (Mink Stole); her children are delinquents and her mother is robbing her blind. Francine's only support comes from her friend Cuddles (Edith Massey). Various tragedies befall Francine- she divorces Elmer and falls into alcoholism, her son is arrested and her daughter taken to a Catholic home for unwed mothers. Into this darkness comes a ray of light- Todd Tomorrow (former teen idol Tab Hunter). But can he be trusted? The final twenty minutes or so fall into absolute mayhem with a body count worthy of a Tarantino movie. This was the first Waters film to get an R rating by the MPAA and was the last film to feature Edith Massey who died in 1984.

Hairspray (1988) is probably Waters' most main-stream and 'commercial' film but there's still a cheerfully anarchic streak to it with its overarching theme of racial integration and equality in the 1960s. Pleasantly plump teenager Tracey Turnblad (Ricki Lake) wants to dance on The Corny Collins Show and fulfils her dream. The show is racially segregated and Tracey, along with her friends, seeks to break down those barriers. This is Divine's last film for Waters as he sadly passed away in 1988. Waters' next film Cry-Baby (1990) is a send-up of teen musicals such as Grease. Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of delinquent teen Wade Walker (Johnny Depp) and good girl Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane) as they fall in love. This is the first of Waters' films in which he cast Patricia Hearst, who would go on to be a regular collaborator.

Serial Mom (1994) is probably my favourite of Waters' films. Beverley Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is a perfect housewife and mother... who also has a penchant for making obscene phonecalls and killing anyone who upsets or inconveniences her family in any way. Critical teachers, unfaithful boyfriends and complaining dental patients all face Beverley's wrath. It's a delicious and extremely black comedy and Turner absolutely plays it to the hilt. Mink Stole almost steals the show as harassed neighbour Dottie Hinkle, the target of Beverley's phonecalls. There is some real inventiveness to some of the death scenes- seeing a woman getting battered to death by a cooked leg of lamb to the overture from Annie is a particular highlight.

Waters' next two films both use various art-forms as their starting-point: Pecker (1998) tells the story of a Baltimore sandwich shop employee (Edward Furlong) who becomes the next big thing in the art world when his photographs of his weird family becomes famous and Cecil B. Demented (2000) features Stephen Dorff as a crazy film director who kidnaps A-list Hollywood actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) to appear in his underground film.

Waters' most recent film is 2004's A Dirty Shame, an eye-watering catalogue of sexual perversity. Repressed housewife Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullmann) gets a knock on the head which untaps a voracious sexual appetite. She meets Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville) who initiates her into the secret fetish cult that lies beneath the pristine lawns of her neighbourhood, much to the disgust of her mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Sullivan) and Ethel's friend Marge (Mink Stole). Despite being a mainstream film, it has the same outsider feel as his early work and is certainly not one for the faint-hearted.

After all this, where next for Waters? Well, he has had long-gestating plans to make a Christmas movie for kids under the working title Fruitcake. Having read this article, you could have major misgivings about a John Waters kids’ movie but- if it does get made- you can bet I’ll be in line to see it.


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