Uploaded to MoviePilot July 24th 2017
45 years ago a little film made by a group of renegade movie lovers was released into cinemas and the world hasn’t been the same since. It was shocking. It was appalling. It was one of the most disgusting movies to ever be put into cinemas… and I love it.
That movie was Pink Flamingos and I remember reading about it in the book “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”. The picture in the book was gloriously macabre, a giant drag queen with bright orange hair cheering in delight as she opened a gift that turned out to be a pigs head. It was a shocking image, but it was memorable. It made me need to see this movie because it looked so different, I’d seen a few extreme movies by this point but I’d never seen anything like that picture before. It took me a while to find a copy since the movie was banned in Australia for a long period of time and never got a localized DVD release, but I eventually got a copy (Imported and found by my parent’s, so they encouraged this!) and I watched it. I was amazed that such a film could get made. I had already seen a few other John Waters movies but Pink Flamingos was special to me, I even got my copy of it signed when John came down to Australia to do one of his stand-up tours.
I wanted to suggest it to others to watch but I knew it’s one you have to work up to, you don’t just go right from Hairspray to Pink Flamingos. You have to ease into the weirdness and so that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to ease you into Pink Flamingos, we’re taking a trip from John’s most commercial film to his most iconic film and hopefully, by the time you get through this list, you will understand the importance that this man has had to the art of film and independent cinema in general.
Before we start, this list will be in order that YOU should view them in, not in order of quality or personal enjoyment but in order of what might appeal to you as you delve deeper into the man’s filmography for the first time. I’m also only going to be talking about the 10 films he has made post-Pink. His early work like Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs are basically die hard fans only so if you make it through this list and end up wanting to see more then that’s when you should look up the pre-Pink stuff. With all that said, let’s do this.
Start With Hairspray
Hairspray is easily the John Waters movie that most people have heard of, thanks to the huge hit Broadway show, the 2007 glossy remake and the live version of the stage show that aired on TV in 2016. The original movie is easily better than all of them, in my opinion. It’s a great film about segregation that still was happening in the 60s, it was a riff on dance shows that were covering the TV in John’s youth and has one of the most wonderfully eclectic casts to be put in a film. Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, Jerry Stiller and of course Divine. This is actually Divine’s last film before passing a mere nine days after this film was released, and it’s easily the best performance Divine ever gave. This is what John would consider his dance movie and the dances in this are really good, they’re classics like the Mashed Potato or The Madison Time and they all fit seamlessly into the plot of this film.
This is easily the most accessible John Waters movie out there. It has very little of his trademark filth that we’ll be exploring in later movies on this list but it does show off his writing ability. He gives his characters some great lines like “I watch that tramp and I’m embarrassed to be white” or “I wish I was at a hootenanny in Harlem”. It’s the movie of his that anyone could enjoy and thanks to the musical remakes, you know the story already so it’s easily the first one you should look at.
Pretty much everything about this movie works wonderfully. The characters are well defined, the dialogue is top notch and every dance scene is filmed perfectly. I think the only issue I have is with the character of Motormouth Maybelle who rhymes every line no matter if she’s public or in private. It’s a weird nervous tick that can get a bit annoying, but she’s also so insanely happy and loving that you can easily get beyond that.
Next Up… Cry Baby
This is the other John Waters movie that I’m going to guess most people know. Cry Baby is officially John’s movie musical and was actually turned into a stage musical that sadly closed very soon after opening. The story follows Cry Baby Walker, an orphan boy whose parents were sent to the electric chair. He falls in love with the good girl in town named Allison and together they begin a Romeo & Juliet style romance, where their social status almost keeps them apart but their love pulls them together. It’s got some really great musical numbers like the title track “King Cry Baby” or my personal favourite “Please Mr Jailer”
This is the one that’s easiest to follow Hairspray with. You’ll recognize a fair few of the cast members returning, like Ricki Lake and Mink Stole. It’s got that same musicality that Hairspray had with its use of obscure songs and a few originals that fit the story perfectly. Its easily got the most mainstream cast that John’s ever assembled, including Johnny Depp in the title role. Iggy Pop is Johnny’s adopted father. Freaking Troy Donahue is in this movie (You know, the guy who is such a symbol of the 50’s that they literally name-checked him in Grease?). Willem Dafoe played a guard. Its cast is just a laundry list of absolutely amazing actors. It also served as a way for John to give people second chances with the casting of Traci Lords (Who at the time had just been revealed to have appeared in pornography as a minor, FBI agents literally would raid the set to serve her papers) and Patricia Hearst (Who you might know better as Patty Hearst, the woman who was kidnapped by the SLA and ended up taking part in armed robberies in order to survive). Those two women, by the way, give some of the most incredible performances in the movie, especially Traci who basically took the thing that had been used against her by others (Sex) and turned it into a powerful weapon of her own in this film.
The only scene in this movie that never worked for me is the one where Allison cries into a jar and drinks her tears. Of everything in the movie, that’s the scene that feels most out of place, it’s put there because John has to put in a little bit of weirdness in every movie but this one was a bit too out of place for me. Beyond that, though it’s all great. Fantastic musical numbers, a great visual aesthetic, terrific casting. It’s a must-see.
Next Up… Serial Mom
Have you ever been annoyed? Ever had someone do something minor that irritated you so much that you wanted to kill them? Beverly Sutphin has and Serial Mom follows her during her rampage through Baltimore. It starts almost innocently with her wanting to defend her son from a mean teacher and ends up with her beating someone to death with a leg of lamb for not rewinding a videotape. She’s just trying to be a good mother, but she’s very extreme about it.
This is probably one of my personal favourites but it’s also very relevant to today. This was made in 1994 before O. J. Simpson changed how we look at crime stories as entertainment. This is how ahead of the curve Serial Mom was, they filmed a slow-motion car chase scene two weeks before the legendary white Bronco chase. The style of the crime recreation format was still new back then, now it’s old and well known so this parody of it works a lot better because we know the tropes they’re playing with. It’s also just a damn fun ride that you need to take.
The best thing in the entire movie is Kathleen Turner who basically has to carry the entire film all by herself. She has to turn on a dime between kind loving mother and violent killer and she does it with ease. She has such obvious delight in playing this part and steals focus no matter what she’s doing. The supporting cast is also a genuine delight to watch, including newcomer (At the time) Matthew Lillard, Ricki Lake and Sam Waterson who play Kathleen’s family. The scenes with those four are a delight. Honestly I kind of just wish they’d had Beverly kill more people, the scenes of her turning into the suburban Jason Voorhees are the funniest in the film because every single time Kathleen get’s an insane smile on her face that makes it absolutely hilarious.
Next Up… Female Trouble
Now we’re moving on to the more extreme movies but this one is special. Female Trouble follows Dawn Davenport, a juvenile delinquent who decides that the best way to get famous is to be a criminal. Along the way she also has to try and raise a child who wants nothing more than to get away from her mother. Meanwhile she’s living next door to a woman named Ida who merely want’s what’s best for her nephew… basically, she want’s him to get a boyfriend, even though he’s straight and married to Dawn. It’s a glorious romp through one woman’s life of crime that culminates with her being sent to the electric chair, her version of winning the Oscar.
This film has a lot of similarities with Serial Mom, the idea of crime being an element of fame and that twist on normal suburban life. It’s certainly a more extreme version of Serial Mom but thematically the two are very close so if you enjoyed Serial Mom then this movie is the one to push you into John’s more extreme works that’re going to be coming up before we hit the big one.
The best part of this film is easily Divine who get’s to show off just how talented she was. For starters, this is the movie where Divine first played a guy. We got to see Harris Glenn Milstead (The actor who played Divine) have several scenes acting across from Divine. It’s a very surreal idea, especially when they have a sex scene, but both characters are distinct and incredibly well done. The final speech that takes place in the electric chair is one of the greatest final monologues I’ve seen in a long time. I really can’t think of anything in this film that doesn’t work. Once you buy into the concept and understand the tone of the film, everything fits perfectly. This is easily the best work John produced in his career, it’s whip-smart with some great scenes and some insanely great design choices. If you like this film, then you’re going to be a John Waters fan. Also, it has one hell of an awesome theme song.
Next Up… Cecil B. Demented
The definition of a movie that couldn’t have been made any other time than when it was made, Cecil B. Demented is a film about literal cinema terrorists. A gang of filmmakers kidnaps an actress named Honey Whitlock (Played by Melanie Griffith) to be the star of their film. The movie is an attack on the cinema in the best way possible, it takes on the phony nature of Hollywood and it’s overuse of sequels and directors cuts. It takes the idea of the guerrilla filmmaker to the logical extreme and just creates this world where nothing matters but finishing their movie.
This is one of the more divisive films that John has produced. Barely breaking two million at the box office on its release, it’s one that really relies on you buying into John’s aesthetic as a filmmaker. It’s certainly more abrasive than a lot of his movies as he doesn’t shy away from calling out everyone in Hollywood and attacking the very concept of the family film. It’s also a movie that pushes the joke about 80% of the way but doesn’t go for broke when it really could just deliver a gut punch to the system. Plus it’s about literal terrorism… it was made in 2000, you see why this film wouldn’t have worked at any other point since then?
In terms of what works, these might be some of the best characters that John’s created. Honey Whitlock, an A-list starlet who slowly learns that the world of the A-lister isn’t right for her. Cecil B. Demented, an insane filmmaker who would put Kubrick to shame in terms of what he will put an actor through. Rodney, a hair stylist who is ashamed of his heterosexuality. Raven, the Satan-worshipping makeup artist. Every character has so many layers to them and is so insanely hilarious. The dialogue is spot on, great lines like “Before I was a drug addict, I had so many different problems. Now I just have one – drugs! Gave my life a real focus.” or “Power to the people who punish bad cinema”, every joke works. It’s also got some great actors who were just getting their starts like Adrian Grenier or Maggie Gyllenhaal. The only problem is that the film does have a bit of a problem in the final act when everything just gets so chaotic that it’s hard to follow all the side plots, some just kind of get resolved in one minute. But other than that it’s a good fun ride.
Next Up… Polyester
This is the turning point in John’s career. Before this movie, he was just known for making underground movies that got press just for being shocking but this film got press for being a genuinely clever parody of the housewives in trouble genre. Polyester follows Francine Fishpaw who is going through a hard time. Her husband runs an adult cinema and is having an affair with his secretary, her son is the ‘Baltimore Foot Stomper” and her daughter is pregnant but can’t wait to have an abortion. Basically, her life is a mess until she runs into Todd Tomorrow who shows Francine that she really can have a normal life. It’s basically an extreme version of a Lifetime movie before Lifetime was even a thing.
This is the movie where John went from the underground to mainstream. Hairspray may have gotten him the mainstream success but this is where he embraced the style and used it to tell his own story. It’s one I think you should work up too just to really appreciate how much he’s subverting tropes, how much this work is basically the foundation of all the previous ones that’re on the list. It also features another great Divine performance, the first one where she’s actually trying to pass as a normal suburban housewife and it’s got some great character acting on her part.
The only thing in this film I really remember not liking is the dream sequence, it’s the most out of place element in the film and in general, I just don’t think that we need it. Polyester works at it’s best when its taking this insane scenario as seriously as it possibly can, when they start pushing it to the point of ridiculousness (Like the dream sequence or the ending of the Todd Tomorrow story line) it gets a little harder to accept but everything else is so well done. It’s one of the ones that was the most ahead of its time. You could remake this movie today and put it on Lifetime and no one would bat an eyelid.
Next Up… Pecker
Pecker is a story about a boy and his camera. He loves to take pictures of everything in his daily life and occasionally hangs them up in the laundromat. It’s there that his work is seen by a New York art dealer and the next thing you know, Pecker has gone from being a nobody in Baltimore to the hottest artist in New York. However, he soon sees that his photos of his family are causing them to be ridiculed and decides to turn the tables on the art world. Short version… this is basically John’s version of a semi-self-biopic.
This one is the film that probably straddles the line between mainstream John and underground John. So often there are scenes that just scream for something outrageous to happen and it doesn’t go there. One reviewer in Japan described it best as “A Disney film for perverts” and that is true, there’s a lot of things in this movie that does poke at the boundaries but never pushes them over. Also by this point in your marathon, I’d hope you’ve looked up enough about John to catch how certain elements of him are a part of Pecker. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but I know I kept getting the feeling that there’s the essence of John Waters in the character of Pecker.
The problem is that this film is too nice. It’s sweet and enchanting and that’s all well and good but for this to work, I really need it to just push over that boundary. I need New York to be a sea of depravity, I need it to just be a film for perverts. Instead, it just teases us with possibility. It does have some amazing performances though by the main cast, including Christina Ricci and Edward Furlong. They basically carry the film and sometimes they work, other times they don’t.
Next Up… A Dirty Shame
This is, currently, the last film that John made and it looks like it might be the final film he ever makes considering how impossible it is to get funding for his movies. A Dirty Shame follows Silvia Stickles who is a normal suburban housewife until she hits her head and becomes a sex addict. What follows is a cross between a Three Stooges movie and a teen sex comedy made for fetishists and it’s glorious.
This one is possibly the film of John’s that pushes the taste boundary the furthest (Until we get to the last one anyway). It’s absolutely an acquired taste and you need to be a John Waters die hard to truly love this movie. You have to be aware of just how his mind works, how filthy he is and how smart he is about that filth. There are no actual sex acts in this movie, it’s all just talked about but that talk is so specific and detailed that it got the film an NC-17 rating. It’s a movie where you need to pay attention to every line of dialogue and understand how John’s comedy rhythm’s work to appreciate it but you will.
The cast in this one is the best thing. Tracey Ullman is absolutely fearless. Selma Blair makes the comically over-sized breastplate she has to wear seem believable. Johnny Knoxville plays the Savior of Sex and sells every single line he get’s. The downside is that this film is so extreme and silly that it’s not for everyone. If you get even the slightest bit offended about sex then this film really isn’t for you but if you can laugh at the insanity of the act, go for it. If nothing else you need the soundtrack to this movie in your life because it is amazing.
Next Up… Desperate Living
Desperate Living follows the neurotic Peggy Gravel who is absolutely afraid of everything from the neighbours to the air to the birds in the trees. After her maid, Grizelda, crushes Peggy’s husband to death the two of them run away to Mortville, a town run by Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey in her best role ever). While there they move in with a transgender-man named Mole McHenry and her girlfriend Muffy. While in Mortville Peggy and Grizelda do whatever they can to get by, be it lesbian prison sex or injecting people with rabies… yeah, you can tell this is a strange underground movie made in the 70s can’t you?
This one is one of the harder films to watch because it’s so insane and weird. This is the first film John made without Divine starring in it and you can tell it’s missing that special something. It’s a very strange movie that plays on the Women in Prison genre and really does just push every boundary. It’s got a lot of very tasteless moments, including the character of Mole who is transgender but then decides not to be (This includes a sex change that is then reversed with a kitchen knife, it’s weird and I don’t even know how to describe it properly so apologies if my wording isn’t right). That’s the kind of thing you need to ease into.
What really works about this movie is that it may be the best movie I know of where every single main character, without exception, is female. Sure there are some side male characters like the husband, the sheriff and a garbage collector but for the most part, it’s a cast entirely of women of all shapes and sizes who are just awful people and are trying to deal with that. It’s also got an amazing set design, the look of the movie is just so unique that I don’t think any other film could make this kind of imagery work. Also again, the dialogue is hilarious. How many films would have the main character scream “Tell your mother I hate her! Tell your mother I hate you!” to a bunch of children? None, more films need that. My big issue is that the film feels like a slog to get through. It’s only 90 minutes but it feels longer, at least it did to me. Some scenes just feel pointless, like the scene with the sheriff, and it does pull you out of it. If you can make it through though you’ll be rewarded with some amazing dialogue and some great rotten female characters.
Finally… Pink Flamingos
This is it, the big one. This is the film that you’ve been warned about, the movie that you know purely by reputation as “That one where the drag queen eats the dog poo”. It’s that and so much more. Pink Flamingos revolves around Babs Johnson who is happily living her life in private after winning the title of “Filthiest Person Alive”. However, she is pulled out of retirement when the Marble family try to take her title. The entire film is a trip through depravity, think of a taboo and we break it here. Think of something shocking, Pink Flamingos did it and did it better than anyone else. Incest? Done. Murder? Done. Cannibalism? Done. Wearing white after labor day? OK, let’s not go nuts.
A movie like this isn’t something you just jump into unless you really like extreme movies. You need to work up to this one, but it’s worth it. It’s what made John a household name. It exposed the world to his own brand of hilarious depravity. This movie is important and it’s really something you should see. You’ve already seen its influence in films like American Wedding (The scene where Stiffler eats the dog poop is just a direct lift from this movie), Dawn of the Dead (The fat female zombie is basically Edith Massey), Jackass (That entire franchise owes everything to Pink Flamingos) and even Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. No, I’m not kidding on that one.
This is a movie where you better be able to laugh at everything in order to enjoy it and I do mean everything. I am not kidding when I say that every taboo you can think of is broken in this movie and it’s all pretty hilarious provided you can just go along with the joke. John pushed every boundary and most are hilariously done. There is one scene involving a chicken that does go too far, even John himself admits this. Yes, this film does have a chicken in it. Yes, the chicken dies on screen.Yes, it’s crushed between two people having sex… like I said, EVERY taboo is broken here. You will find something in this movie that will shock you, there are no two ways about it. One scene at some point is going to make you gasp and go “Oh that’s too much”, I urge you to power through it because the film is genuinely a great exploration of the limits of taste and it’s so rare that a film made in the 70s can still shock us today. Movies that shocked us in the 70s get glossy remakes now. Last House On The Left was considered one of the most appalling films ever, it got remade. I Spit On Your Grave was deplorable, but remakable. Pink Flamingos? Yeah, never getting remade because everything in it just couldn’t be put on screen today.
If you made it through all the films in this list then congratulations on joining the Dreamland fandom, we welcome you to join our depravity and I hope going through John’s career has introduced you to a side of cinema that you weren’t exposed to before. These kinds of extreme films aren’t made anymore and it’s a shame because John shows that you could shock an audience in an intelligent way. If you make it through all these movies I also highly recommend the stand up special This Filthy World where John goes into detail about every film and you get to see him showing off his comedic chops. I hope you enjoyed your trip down the rabbit hole, your film viewing life will never be the same.
What other directors can you think of who made the transition from underground to mainstream?