Director John Waters made his name as a master of “trash-art,” a bombastic, anything-goes style of cinema which kicked convention to the curb and helped to launch the midnight movie. His famous “Trash Trilogy” includes 1972’s Pink Flamingos (perhaps his most famous film), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). In the latter, Waters pulls from melodrama, horror and The Wizard of Oz (1939) to craft one of his most outlandish, unpredictable and colorful films. Waters regular Mink Stole stars as Peggy Gravel, a nerve-shredded suburbanite newly released from a stay at a Baltimore psychiatric hospital. After suffocating her husband, Peggy and her in-home nurse Grizelda (Jean Hill) take to the road. A run-in with a corrupt cop leads the two to the aptly-named Mortville, a ramshackle town deep in the country. Populated by a wild bag of criminals and outcasts trying to exist outside the stuffy parameters of conventional society, the town sits in the shadow of a looming castle. The depraved Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey, the famous egg-eater from Pink Flamingos) rules with the help of a tight leather and mesh-clad police guard. The queen takes interest in newcomer Peggy, but tensions come to a head as the townspeople begin to revolt, and Peggy finds herself on the wrong end of an angry mob. Waters, a lover of all things gauche and discarded, imbues every scene with his signature touch to craft a world that intertwines reality and fantasy, especially as the story moves from the leafy Baltimore suburbs to the muddy claustrophobia of Mortville. Of course the film features a healthy dose of his signature “bad taste” in the form of prison sex, self-mutilation, cannibalism and death by rabies, but also argues for the rights of people cast to society’s fringes. Divine, Waters’ most famous collaborator, isn’t present here, but a number of his “Dreamlanders” (Waters’ frequent cadre of actors) deliver colorful, all-out performances. Be sure to note the film’s genuinely filthy set design. Constructed of cardboard, corrugated metals and bright plastics, the set is Oz filtered through a psychedelic garbage heap. Built on farmland in rural Maryland, the actual “Mortville” set helped life imitate art, with poor sanitation and living conditions driving the crew to their limit. For Waters, it all helped to serve yet another unmatched tale of depravity and desperation in a world losing its mind.
by Thomas Davant