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The John Waters Viewing Guide
It’s better to ease in if you’re totally unfamiliar
With John Waters receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this week, and the prospect of a new Waters film—at last—on the horizon, now is a good time to talk about John Waters’ filmography and how best to approach Waters’ work for the uninitiated. You can’t just dive into the world of John Waters—I mean, you CAN, but trust me, it’s better to ease in—if you’re totally unfamiliar.
The first thing you have to do before beginning your Waters journey is ask yourself if you really, truly have the stomach for it. Waters’ films are gross. And I don’t mean gross as in “gory”, though they can be, or “perverted”, though they are certainly that, too. The fetish indulgence, the grotesquerie, the body horror, the nudity, the bestiality, the cannibalism, the incest—John Waters EARNED his title as the “King of Filth”. There are shit-stained sex scenes, people eating feces, people eating a lot of disgusting stuff, lobster rape, so many fetishes I can’t even count them, live on camera chicken decapitations, singing buttholes, just a lot of anuses in general, and gallons of vomit, most of it actually real, produced in the moment.
So when I say “be honest with yourself”, I mean BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF. The work of John Waters is not for everyone. A lot of people only know Waters from his pro-smoking anti-smoking PSA, or maybe that one Lonely Island song with Nicki Minaj, or maybe they’ve seen Hairspray, and then they run screaming for the exits halfway through Pink Flamingos. Not everything has to be your bag, it’s okay if John Waters is Too Much.
But if you are willing to try Waters, here’s a viewing guide of his feature films for the camp curious. It’s something of an endurance test, and I would be SUPER curious to hear how far you make it through his filmography before throwing in the towel. Unless otherwise mentioned, Waters’ films can be rented on Prime Video and Vudu.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but start with the musicals
Waters’ two most accessible films are, hands down, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. This is the place to start. Cry-Baby comes with some baggage, since the Johnny Depp of 1990 turned into the Johnny Depp of 2023, and co-star Amy Locane is currently incarcerated for a fatal DUI. But it remains a great litmus test for John Waters. Hairspray is completely innocuous, by Waters standards, but Cry-Baby has a little more of the intentionally bad acting and weirdo characters that define his work. These two films are also satires of Eighties nostalgia for the 1950s, and it’s always fun to see Waters, an astute cultural critic, turn his eye on mainstream culture. If you can get through these films and aren’t put off by the hamminess of the performances or the occasionally slightly-too-quirky-for-comfort characters, proceed to the next phase.
Cultural critique from culture’s garbage man
Pecker is one of Waters’ least accomplished films, made at the height of his mainstream Hollywood phase in the 1990s, but it is almost like a cry for help coming from an outsider artist pushed to the center of the culture. By the Nineties, Waters had been around long enough to start influencing the next wave of filmmakers breaking out in the “new indie cinema” of the decade, and Pecker is about celebrity culture and the deleterious effect of fame on true artists and their subjects.
Waters hones his thesis in Cecil B. Demented, a sharp critique of Hollywood. If Pecker is John Waters losing patience with mainstream success, by Demented, he’s totally over it and ready to burn the place down. There are some solid jokes about the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood, too. You can stream this one for free on Tubi.
And then there’s Serial Mom, starring Kathleen Turner as a suburban serial killer. True crime—Waters is an aficionado—conservative hypocrisy, suburban stifling of culture, it’s all here, and it has one of Waters’ best executed gore scenes involving a liver and a fire poker.
If you make it through Serial Mom and you’re still willing to keep going, then next up is…
Weird sex stuff with suburbanites
After the mainstream and relatively gross-out free films of the Nineties, Waters swung back to grotesquerie and weird sex stuff with A Dirty Shame, currently his last feature film, which is steeped in Bush-era hypocrisy (John Waters has a real dislike of suburban conservatism). Many saw this as a return to form for Waters, as this film earned an NC-17 rating and saw him bring blunt jokes and discussions of sex act and fetishes, as well as countless gross-out gags and body horror, back to the big screen. Compared to his earlier work, it’s middling, but if you’re still rocking through Waters’ filmography, at this point, you’re about knee deep in the filth. Also, Johnny Knoxville is a surprisingly good addition to Waters’ “Dreamlanders” coterie of performers.
Jump back 23 years to 1981’s Polyester, a satire of “women’s pictures”, a B-movie genre of exploitation films about women, usually bored housewives, finding escapism through younger men. This is the first film on my list to star Divine, Waters’ frequent collaborator and legendary drag pioneer. When Divine arrives, shit is getting real. Part of the “sanitization” of John Waters in the Nineties might be down to Divine’s death in 1988. Without his most famous Dreamlander giving her all on screen, up to and including her own turds for gross-out gags, Waters sort of floundered without his muse. That later, Divine-less work is more accessible, but the Divine-era films are what most people define as John Waters’ trashterpieces.
Anyway, Polyester, spoofing Douglas Sirk specifically, is the most accessible of the Divine-era films. Though there is more foot fetishism and vomit on display, Polyester is relatively tame, as most of the gross-out gags centered on “Odorama” scratch-n-sniff cards for the audience, which, obviously, we don’t have access to. We’re missing a whole dimension of this film.
Take a break to watch John Waters give a tour of his Baltimore apartment in 1986. It’s the original AD Open Door.
The Trash Trilogy
Arguably Waters’ most famous films are contained within the “trash trilogy”: Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977). The first two star Divine, the last stars Liz Renay. These films are, I’m not going to lie, tough to get through. There’s a lot of vomit. There’s a lot of shit. People eat gross stuff, including human flesh. There’s a lot of sex, some of non-consensual, some of it non-consensual with giant lobsters. The acting is bad, but it’s on purpose.
At heart, Waters’ films are comedies, most are either social satire or genre parody. His riffs on the exploitation films he grew up on are strong throughout this trilogy, his style at this stage is gleefully filthy. His later films will tone down the filth in favor of satire and critique, but these are the films that turned him into the King of Filth, the Pope of Trash, American cinema’s greatest weirdo and most influential peddler of tawdry thrills. If you make it through the trash trilogy, congratulations, you’ve graduated from the School of John Waters.
Post-Graduate Filth Studies
Multiple Maniacs features an anal sex scene filmed in a real church while crew members were distracting the priest outside. It’s either the best or worst guerilla filmmaking, depending on your sensibilities. There’s also a thing about “puke eaters”, honestly, I saw this one in a cinema class and have never, ever revisited it. This film can be streamed for free on Tubi. Good luck.
Mondo Trasho is basically impossible to find. It’s Waters’ first feature film, produced in 1969. It’s a silent film with a soundtrack copped from Waters’ own record collection. He never paid licensing fees for the music, which is true to his guerilla filmmaking style, but it also makes the film a legal quagmire. Due to this, it remains out of distribution and un-streamable. Maybe you’ll find someone with a physical copy, but good luck, in this day age. I’ve only ever seen this in a classroom setting. The film starts with real chickens being decapitated. A classmate puked in the hall. It was, to say the least, memorable.
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