I love that as I progress through this Top 10, the more I write on the films. I tried to keep each description down to a couple of succinct sentences but trying to do that with masterpieces like Pink Flamingos, Polyester and Female Trouble was impossible.
John Waters isn’t just a brilliant film director, screenwriter and all-round legend, he’s a guiding light for anyone who is passionate about true cult cinema, underground culture and anything that is on the margins of culture. My love of Waters began with Hairspray and developed from there. I read Shock Value that had just been republished, then Crackpot. In those dark days, there was no Scala cinema in my town to show his films. However, his earlier films appeared in a VHS box set in the early ’90s that I quickly bought and devoured. All of the films within had been cut by the BBFC but it was better than nothing. As time went on and common sense prevailed, the films became available uncut and all was right with the world.
I have a lot to thank John Waters for. Just as David Bowie was a figure of inspiration for all of the weirdos, freaks and individuals who dared to be different, John Waters is the same kind of figure but just working in a different medium. He’s also one of the greatest living film directors today. I’m so glad he’s returning to direction and that his next project will be an adaptation of his great first novel, Liarmouth. His absence has been greatly felt.
Here’s my Top 10. Please feel free to let me know what yours are.
10. Cry Baby
A bigger budget, a huge ensemble cast (Traci Lords! Iggy Pop! Johnny Depp!) but no adverse effect on the film. It’s a terrific romp and with one of the funniest opening credit sequences in film history.
Adult, mature Waters. But again, this doesn’t affect the content. This film showcases just how far Waters had progressed as both a filmmaker and as a screenwriter. And it’s just as funny and perceptive as ever.
8. Cecil B. Demented
Waters’ views on the kind of mainstream cinema that is made to be shown in suburban cineplexes. Riotously funny but largely ignored on its release (I wonder why) this is like a manifesto for fans and makers of underground films.
7. Serial Mom
A loving mother is also a serial killer. Funny as hell, a cameo from L7 (as a band called ‘Camel Lips’) and a great time capsule of everything great about the mid-90s. How Kathleen Turner wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her performance I don’t know. Her performance is one of the best I’ve ever seen in ANY film.
John Waters’ PG-rated racial segregation comedy. Yes, really. This was my introduction to Waters’ movies as my friend and I used to watch this and dance along to it in my front room. Hairspray also introduced the gorgeous Ricki Lake to the world. And any film starring Deborah Harry is high art to me. Divine’s last movie before his death. One of the greatest losses to the film world EVER.
5. Desperate Living
The early Waters movie that didn’t star Divine (he was starring in the stage play The Neon Woman and so couldn’t appear). Because of this Desperate Living is like the underdog of the early Waters movies which makes me root for it more. There’s so much to love here. This was released in 1977 during the apex of punk. In fact, overseas this film was renamed ‘Punk Story’. Waters’ films have always been punk and contributed to the formation of the movement in the US and UK.
4. Multiple Maniacs
Multiple Maniacs reminds me of Night of the Living Dead. Both were shot in black and white and when they were both restored (by the ever-excellent Criterion in both cases) we could suddenly see how gorgeous they looked. A touring freakshow, a sequence depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and a giant lobster. You’ll find out what a rosary job is by watching this film. And there’s a character who may or may not have been involved in what happened on Cielo Drive on a certain night in 1969. Essential Waters. This was also the film that unleashed Edith Massey onto the world. The world was/is a much better place because of this.
3. Pink Flamingos
The World’s Filthiest Person now finds she has challengers to her title. Big mistake. The conclusion to this film made sure that it would go down in cinema history. It worked. This film takes full advantage of the fact that this is Waters’ first film is shot in colour. The colour palate is off the scale, especially Raymond and Connie Marbles’ hair and Divine’s wardrobe. This film is all killer, no filler. It’s also endlessly quotable. Pink Flamingos will make you want to lick your enemies’ furniture and sneer at central heating. When I started my degree in Film Studies at university we had to write an essay on a film that depicted societal issues. I wrote an essay on Pink Flamingos and talked about competition and family values. I got a pretty good grade too.
Waters’ film was shot in Odorama but Polyester is a masterpiece whether you see it with the Odorama cards or not. Former teen idol and homosexual Tab Hunter was lured in to star with Divine in this melodrama riposte/Douglas Sirk from Hell movie. Again, this movie is all killer, no filler. Your jaw will be aching at the end of this movie from laughing so much. The character Lulu Fishpaw is one of my favourites from all of Waters’ films. Whether sees displaying her report card that is full of F’s (‘they changed the grading system. F is for fantastic!’), getting knocked up by her punk rocker boyfriend Bobo (real-life punk rocker Stiv Bators) or learning all about her cervix in sex education class, she is iconic and has a Farrah Fawcett hairstyle to boot. Again Polyester is endlessly quotable with lines such as ‘At first I thought he was walking the dog. Then I realised it was his date!’ A masterpiece.
1 Female Trouble
This film chronicles the life of Divine’s Dawn Davenport who works her way up the crime ladder and finally gets what she sees as the pinnacle achievement in her chosen occupation of criminal- the electric chair which is to her like an actor getting an Oscar for their achievements. One of the funniest films ever made, this film also possesses laser precision when it comes to its observations on celebrity, fame, infamy and true crime. Waters is a true crime aficionado himself and attended several prominent trials for cases that fired his imagination. Female Trouble is the product of these experiences and more. The film is even dedicated to Tex Watson although after his friendship with Patricia Krenwinkle (whom he believes to be fully rehabilitated and should be released), he says he would never have done that now. You think you’ve seen it all with this film but then you see Divine with a mohawk, on a trampoline and then fellating a fish. Female Trouble isn’t just a film, it’s a state of mind. This film sorts out the true cult cinema fans from the try-hard pretenders. This is my third favourite film of all time. Long may it reign.