Tag Archives: John Waters

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT FILMS OF ALL TIME, VOL 3: COMEDY & CAMP (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

PLOT: The final installment of a three-part survey of cult films, focusing on comedies and films with a camp sensibility. (Volume 1 is reviewed here, Volume 2 here.)

Still from Time Warp Greatest Cult Movies of All Time Vol. 3: Comedy and Camp

COMMENTS: This omnibus collection of mini-documentaries confronts its most challenging subject matter here in the third act. In the case of comedy, the ability to make audiences laugh is subjective, underappreciated, and difficult to discuss without destroying the very qualities of humor. When it comes to discussing camp, the concept itself carries with it issues of gender, sexuality, race, and power. How would the producers of the Time Warp series address these important, sometimes even incendiary topics?

The answer is: pretty much not at all. Time Warp just wants to have fun and share some rabidly adored films. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the fact that the filmmakers don’t even want to engage with some of these interesting topics means that the whole enterprise carries about as much weight as “VH-1’s 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders.”

There’s a pretty straightforward recipe for Time Warp’s method: play some clips from a film that took time to find its audience, get some of the movie’s participants to recount tales from the production, throw in some well-chosen clips and a little commentary from talking heads to explain why the film has a devoted following, and let simmer for 10 minutes. Then queue up another movie and do it all again. The panel of hosts clocks in barely 5 minutes of screen time, and offers virtually nothing in the way of analysis, context, or debate. So you just kind of have to trust that the producers have done their best in picking the comedies and camp-fests that best exemplify the label of “greatest cult films of all time.” Clerks? Yeah, I can see that. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Yes, I am totally convinced. Super Troopers? Um… sure, I guess.

That said, the list assembled here is pretty entertaining. These actors and directors are genuinely and justifiably proud of their work, and thrilled that it has managed to endure and thrive over the years. Diedrich Bader and Jim Gaffigan tell stories of having their famous lines quoted back to them. B-movie legends Erica Gavin and Mary Woronov offer gleefully unrestrained accounts of the conditions in which their movies were made. Jon Gries (whose name is misspelled in his chyron) is interviewed while holding a noisy parrot, and why not. And it’s a bittersweet surprise to see the late Fred Willard show up. Interspersed with well-chosen clips and some thoughtful commentary from critics and other professionals (gold medal to Amy Nicholson for her explanation as to why John Lazar should have become a legend), Vol. 3 makes a pretty strong case that any one of these films could easily merit its own feature-length documentary.

But it’s hard to be sure what distinguishes this from a video version of a Buzzfeed listicle. As my colleague Terri McSorley noted in reviewing Vol. 2, these selections are pretty anodyne. These 18 films are almost wholly American (only Monty Python and the Holy Grail can legitimately call itself a non-US film), largely recent (more than half are less than 30 years old), and predominantly white (actresses Shondrella Avery and Marcia McBroom and actor/director Jay Chandrasekhar help vary the palette). This roster feels like a good place to start the conversation about cult movies, but hardly the end-all be-all of the form.

Maybe I’m just jaded by the extensive efforts of this website to justify the films we crown. After all, consider the fact that Danny Peary needed three volumes to chronicle 200 films in his “Cult Movies” series, or that Scott Tobias’ New Cult Canon accumulated 130 entries over the course of five years. To spend a decent amount of time with 47 films in less than six hours is really a solid achievement. But it still feels like the format makes it impossible to do much more than pay lip service to a handful of films that have earned passionate devotion, without examining the phenomenon or delving into why these films are such good ambassadors.

I’m including the complete list of films discussed in this volume, with links to our reviews. And it’s possibly instructive to compare our attention to campy vs. funny flicks. Guess a comedy’s got to work really hard to land on our radar.

* Part of the 366 Weird Movies Canon

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wolf has a more interview-packed chapter to finish with, securing sunnier features to study, closing on a bright note of classic endeavors that provided a sense of danger, delirium, and human insight, brought to life by talented filmmakers. Any chance to spend time with these titles is most welcome.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT FILMS OF ALL TIME, VOL 1: MIDNIGHT MADNESS (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: , , Ileana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

PLOT: Part one of a three part documentary on cult movies.

Still from Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time, Vol 1. Midnight Movies (2020)

COMMENTS: The charm of Danny Wolf’s talking-heads-plus-clips documentary Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All Time is that, at bottom, it’s just a bunch of knowledgeable film fans sitting around yakking about some of their favorite films, which just also happen to be some of the wildest, weirdest, and most unique visions ever committed to celluloid.

The presentation, however, is a bit ho-hum. There isn’t a great flow from one movie to the next. It starts with a panel briefly attempting to define the term “cult film” (John Waters proposes, “To Hollywood executives, ‘cult film’ means that twenty people who were smarter than them liked it and it lost a lot of money”). They start the survey with an examination of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), not because it was the first cult movie or midnight movie, but because it’s inarguably the most successful repertory feature film of all time. Coverage then segues into The Big Lebowski—because that’s the second most beloved film—and then wanders around, finding opportunity to slip in oddities like blaxploitation movies and Reefer Madness seemingly at random. A more structured approach might have allowed for a deeper appreciation of the historical context and development of these films, but that shouldn’t be a huge obstacle to your enjoyment. The ramshackle order of presentation arguably fits the subject: movies that captivate their audience through passion rather than logic.

Of course, the cult movie geek in me wants to point out that only a few of the pieces covered in this introductory volume were actually “midnight movies” intended to be shown at 12 AM screenings. With Ben Barenholtz (the inventor of the “midnight movie” as a marketing gimmick) on hand, the doc misses a great opportunity to explore a 1970s cultural phenomenon that endures (in an enervated form) to this day. Although it’s relatively senseless to complain about omissions in a subjective project like this, I do think ‘s El Topo (1970) deserved at least a name check, seeing as how it was the first film regularly and specifically programmed for midnight theatrical screenings.

But, to be honest, most true “midnight movies” dive deeper into the cult catalog than Time Warp cares to go. The “Midnight Movies” subtitle is therefore a misnomer for this particular doc (volumes two and three, covering “science fiction and horror” and “comedy and camp,” promise to be more tightly focused). But we’ll give them a break, because Time Warp isn’t a graduate cinema course; it’s a freshman “Introduction to Cult Movies 101” offering. And that’s absolutely fine. While I can think of a number of recommended documentaries devoted to individual films or cult figures (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s ApocalypseI Am Divine), I’m not aware of another film that covers quite the same introductory ground. Time Warp therefore fills a gap. And even if there is a similar documentary out there that I’m overlooking, there’s no way it got this incredible lineup of celebs and icons to chip in their thoughts. I mean, if I told you I had a movie whose cast featured Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey, Fran Drescher, , , and Pam Grier, would you watch it?

Four of the sixteen movies discussed here are canonized on our own list of the best weird movies ever made, with Freaks, Pink Flamingos and Eraserhead joining Rocky Horror. I’ll let you tune in yourself for the reveal of the full list of titles they highlight. As we here know as well as anyone, large part of the enjoyment of any list are friendly arguments about what should and shouldn’t have made the cut. We’ll bring you the scoop on the other two volumes as they are released (the horror is set for May 19, while the camp and comedy one drops on June 23).

At the moment, it appears that Time Warp can be rented on Itunes, Vudu, or Fandango Now. We’ll try to update this post if it shows up on other services.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Beyond the clunkiness of its construction, however, Time Warp nevertheless does cinephiles a great service with its homage to the oddities of the cinematic past. I, for one, was not unhappy with the visit.”–Christopher Llewellyn Reed, Film Festival Today (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MANSFIELD 66/67 (2017)

DIRECTED BY: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

FEATURING: Ann Magnuson, Richmond Arquette, John Waters, , A. J. Benza

PLOT: The final years of the life of perhaps the “Bomb”-est of the Blonde ((Despite being a natural brunette.)) Bombshells is explored through talking heads, archival footage, animation, and a smattering of interpretive dance.

Key art from Mansfield 66/67

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The day may come that someone makes a biographical documentary that is as much of a hyperactive whirlwind of strangeness as was the life of Jayne Mansfield, but today is not that day. Directors Ebersole and Hughes provide instead a rather informative and rather typical movie, albeit one with some eccentric interludes.

COMMENTS: I found it impossible to walk away from a chance to see a movie about the wild final days of Jayne Mansfield, the mega-starlet who was nearly decapitated in a car accident. Her involvement with a local Satanic cult puts her in a category in which few other distinguished Hollywood personages can be found. Opening with an odd choral scene of four singing Mansfield impersonators (of both genders), P. David Ebersole’s and Todd Hughes’ Mansfield 66/67 makes a promise of weird delivery for this weird story. Aside from the singing and dancing scattered throughout the movie, though, the documentary fails on the “weird” side of things.

In the late ’50s through the early ’60s, Mansfield had a string of successes that highlighted her knowingly kitsch persona. With measurements of 44-23-37, it’s somewhat obvious why producers felt at ease putting her on screen: her presence guaranteed, at least, a particular kind of audience. That she was a good actress was all the better, costarring at one point with Hollywood’s primo charmer, Cary Grant. However, she had a problem with saying “yes” too often. She shuffled through husbands and lovers with considerable speed, needing constant attention. This predilection eventually led her into the orbit of the notorious California eccentric, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. However, it wasn’t his theatrical occultism that broke her down, but her affair with her slimy lawyer, Sam Brody, that did the trick. As her film career collapsed, things got worse and worse, until the ill-fated car ride that killed her.

In its attempt to capture the madcap tragedy that ensued from 1966 through 1967, Mansfield 66/67 approaches the documentary genre from left field. Scattered among the talking heads (John Waters being a particular highlight) are performances by a dance troupe enacting, among other events, a damaging romance and her veer toward Satanism. The movie undercuts claims almost as soon as it makes them. Normally, this would be problematic, but it seems that most of Mansfield’s life— both on record and from anecdote—was a bulletin of conflicting information. The rapid pace of her life catches up with her, culminating in the film’s stylistic choice to use cartoons to enact a couple important events. What better way to show how her son got mauled by a lion, or how the mystic Anton LaVey convened with the elements atop a mountain to cast a spell to save the boy?

Shackled to the norms of documentary more than it might care to admit, Mansfield 66/67 isn’t so much weird as endearing. It succeeds famously in its telling of the mad life of Mansfield, but it is anchored far too much in the realism of friend’s reminiscences, academic interpretation, and archival footage. Having to deal with all its factual (if ambiguous) situations, there is little license for flights of fantasy. The oddest thing about Mansfield 66/67 isn’t its intentional delivery, but how it’s so caught up in the whirlwind of its subject’s life that at times it derails itself with narrative detours. Though it does tie in the “66/67” motif of the title, at one point the movie seems to want to be about Anton LaVey. In a way, his story would be a more uplifting one.

Mansfield 66/67 makes its Los Angeles debut this week (on October 25), with scattered screenings to follow. Check their Facebook page for more dates.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an oddball hybrid that’s part documentary, part stylistic mish-mash, but wholly celebratory of Mansfield’s often derided ‘blonde bombshell’ image.”–Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily (festival screening)

MULTIPLE MANIACS (1970) – CRITERION COLLECTION REPORT

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , ,, ,

Still from Multiple Maniacs (1970)

Multiple Maniacs opens with Lady Divine’s Calvacade of Perversion: a circus sideshow, of sorts, set up with the purpose of robbing its patrons. We spend the balance of the film watching the complete mental breakdown of central character, Lady Divine. One thing that really stood out for me on this re-watch of this old favorite is the amount of then-current event references in the film. Cookie’s boyfriend Steve is a member of the radical left-wing underground organization the Weathermen; Bonnie compares amyl nitrate to sex; Lady Divine blackmails her lover Mr. David into claiming he participated in the Tate murders; and Mink fantasizes about people she’d like to kill, including Trish Nixon, Barbra Streisand and Shirley Temple Black. Multiple Maniacs is a twisted time capsule that I had long hoped to add to my DVD collection.

I lost my mind when I read Criterion would be releasing Multiple Maniacs. If that wasn’t enough, Janus Films did a limited theatrical run, which I was lucky enough to see last August 2016 at the Bell Lighthouse Theatre in Toronto. I have every available Waters flick on DVD, but Multiple Maniacs would be my first acquisition on Blu-ray. Criterion DVDs and Blu-rays do come with a higher price tag, but in my experience the quality restoration and supplementary
features make it well worth it. I always invest in a Criterion version of a beloved flick if it is available. Waters was queried on the level of
restoration he wanted to see on the film, which was full-bore; clean up as much as possible. The Blu-ray features an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, and George S. Clinton’s restored music is terrific. The supplements include “The Stations of Filth,” an entertaining ten-minute video essay on Multiple Maniacs by film scholar Gary Needham. There are thirty-two minutes of interviews with cast and crew members Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and George Figgs. As is the case with all of Waters’ older films, the entire cast of Multiple Maniacs were friends of the director. They share some great stories on working with Waters on the film. The trailer included was for the Criterion restoration release.

The real highlight here was the fabulous commentary from John Waters. Waters is hilarious; I always enjoy hearing him speak. The commentary is a funny, informative and sentimental trip through his experience making Multiple Maniacs. Watching the film with the commentary is an absolute must in my opinion. This is the first time Maniacs has been released on DVD/Blu-ray, so no comparisons to note there, but it is certainly a world away from the VHS copy I once owned. Criterion does not disappoint; the picture and soundtrack quality are more than I could ever ask or hope for, and at the end of the day this is ultimately the reason I fork out cash for Criterion. Seeing Multiple Maniacs in 4K is one of my cinematic highlights of this decade!

Still from Multiple Maniacs Criterion Collection

See also Alfred Eaker‘s Multiple Maniacs review, Goregirl’s Multiple Maniacs image gallery on Tumblr, and the original (pre-Criterion release) Goregirl’s Dungeon review.

280. DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

“By the time I made Desperate Living, the era of midnight movies was over, so at the time it was the least successful of all my films. Weirdly enough, it now does really well on video and college campuses. And I’m not quite sure why.”–John Waters

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Susan Lowe, Liz Renay, Jean Hill, , , “Turkey Joe”

PLOT:  With the help of 400 pound maid Griselda, suburban housewife Peggy accidentally murders her deceptively bucolic husband and goes on the lam. A cop directs the fugitives toward a Pleasure Island for criminals called Mortville. Things go south with the village’s fascistic matriarch, until there’s a mutiny in the ramshackle town.

Still from Desperate Living (1977)

BACKGROUND:

  • was originally intended for the role of Mole McHenry (eventually played by Susan Lowe), but could not back out of an alternate commitment. Desperate Living is the only film Waters made during Divine’s lifetime in which the hefty transvestite did not appear.
  • Waters did not cast regular for the film due to the latter’s drug use. Lochary died soon after Desperate Living was released, either from a PCP overdose or from bleeding to death during an accident that occurred while he was tripping on PCP (reports differ).
  • The tagline was “It isn’t very pretty”—a radical understatement.
  • Budgeted at $65,000, this was Waters’ most expensive film to date. 1974’s Female Trouble had a budget of $25,000, while 1972’s Pink Flamingos cost a mere $10,000.
  • The extras of Mortville were homeless residents from the Baltimore skid row, bused in for a single day’s shoot.
  • According to Waters, lesbian groups in Boston protested the film, forcing its cancellation in Beantown.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The opening credit scene of a dead rat served on expensive china, salted, and eaten at a swank dinner party. It sets the table for what’s to come.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Cross-dressing cop; toddler in the fridge; scissors self-castration

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waters outdoes Multiple Maniacs“cavalcade of perversion” in this grunge fairy tale that includes systematic lesbianism, cross-dressing, odious hippie sex scenes, cannibalism, necrophilia, bat rabies, copious facial warts, and gap-toothed queen Edith Massey sexually serviced by leather-bound Nazis.

Opening credits for Desperate Living

COMMENTS:  The finale in John Waters’ “Trash Trilogy,” Desperate Continue reading 280. DESPERATE LIVING (1977)

267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

“The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.”–Aunt Ida, Female Trouble

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , , Michel Potter

PLOT:  Baltimore rebel Dawn Davenport runs away from home, gets knocked up by a rapist, and turns to a life of crime to help pay for the daughter she hates. After a brief and disastrous marriage, Dawn is scarred for life after her ex-husband’s Aunt Ida throws acid in her face. Transformed into a freak celebrity by a salon-owning couple, Dawn embarks upon a murder spree before an inevitable trip to the electric chair.

Still from Female Touble (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • Shot on a $25,000 budget, Female Trouble is puke poet laureate John Waters’ riotous followup to his midnight cult hit, Pink Flamingos. Waters capitalized on the previous film’s surprise success and advertised Female Trouble as having the returning cast of Pink Flamingos. It is the second entry in what Waters later called his “Trash Trilogy,” which begins with Flamingos and ends with Desperate Living.
  • After acting in Waters’ films for twelve years, this was David Lochary’s last screen appearance. He was cast for 1977’s Desperate Living but bled to death as the result of a fall while under the influence of PCP shortly before filming began.
  • Waters’ tagline for Female Trouble was “A high point in low taste.”
  • Divine based part of her portrayal of Dawn on her nightclub act, during which she threw mackerel at the audience and claimed to be a mass murderer.
  • Female Trouble was dedicated to Charles “Tex” Watson, of the Manson Family, who partly inspired the film’s theme of “crime is beauty.” The wooden toy helicopter in the film’s credits was Watson’s gift to Waters after a prison visit. (Waters later said that he regretted the dedication).
  • Alfred Eaker‘s Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dawn jumping up and down on a trampoline, wearing a mohawk and a sparkly pantsuit, at her big performance art showcase.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Divine rapes Divine; chewed umbilical cord; Auntie in a birdcage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: An expressionistic nightmare set in the hell of East Coast suburbia highlighting the rise and fall of a 300 pound transvestite mass murderer, Female Trouble reaches its first climax of lunacy when Dawn chops off Aunt Ida’s hand, locks her up in an oversized birdcage, and goes on her daughter for joining the Hare Krishnas. A second bouncing-off-the-wall climax follows when Dawn murders audience members as performance art before going down in a blaze-of-glory finale that could compete with Cody Jarrett blowing himself up or Tony Montana rat-a-tat-tatting away after being riddled with bullets. Accompanying all that is a beauty myth from the bowels of a white trash hell that would send Naomi Wolf screaming for sanctuary. Female Trouble is even more subversive than Pink Flamingos.


Short clip from Female Trouble (1974)

COMMENTS: On the surface, Female Trouble may appear to be Continue reading 267. FEMALE TROUBLE (1974)

A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART THREE

Previously on 366 Weird Movies…

A John Waters Retrospective, Part 1

A John Waters Retrospective, Part 2

And now, today’s feature presentation…

After a two-year hiatus, returned to the big screen with Cry-Baby (1990), a nostalgic follow-up to Hairspray (1988). Although commercially a flop, Cry-Baby was mostly a critical success and did better overseas. Eventually, like Hairspray, Cry-Baby spawned a Broadway musical. Its mix of camp, sweet-toothed cynicism, and 50s nostalgia are ripe for choreographic treatment, and “Cry-Baby, The Musical” has seen two revivals. It seems inevitable that a big screen adaptation is not far off.

1994’s Serial Mom was a 13-million dollar budgeted cousin to 1974’s $25,000 Female Trouble (probably Waters’ best film). Like Cry-Baby, and every post-Hairspray Waters’ film, Serial Mom lost money, barely making back half of its cost. Like , Waters hones in on the white picket fence, not-so-discreet charm of the American bourgeoisie. His recipe calls for equal parts exploitation, celebrity crime spree, and satire on the hypocrisy of American etiquette, all on a Martha Stewart endcap display, dripping with battery acid.

In Serial Mom, Waters shifts the focus of horror away from doublewide trailers and into suburbia. Naturally, that change of palette has been criticized for taking away Waters’ edge, but this is hardly the case. Waters presents Serial Mom in a visually acceptable package, but even mainstream audiences knew it to be a facade, which is why it lost money. It is easy for middle class WASPS to jeer at and mantle an attitude of superiority towards low income Baltimore Catholic trailer trash. Hell, that approach was the appeal that filled aisle seats in all those midnight showings and made Waters a cult icon. However, nothing is more unnerving than a mirror, which Waters brandishes to his audience, and nothing is resisted like the reflection of hypocrisy.

Still from Serial Mom (1994)Star Kathleen Turner is a virtuoso as Betty in this quintessential parody of suburban family values. She should have received an Oscar for her performance as a matriarchal Norman Bates (could Norman have slaughtered Philistines so creatively with a leg of lamb, to the song ‘Tomorrow’? ) Alas, she was not even nominated in a year of woefully lame Academy choices. This ranks as one of her best performances, and the best acting in any Waters film.  A toe-licking dog (choregraphed to a VHS scene from Annie), a son masturbating to , a noisy infant doused in snot, some swooning to Barry Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART THREE