Director Quest #1: John Waters
This year American Song Contest (I still can’t believe I had to watch this shit for 8 weeks) and Eurovision took it out of me. I’ve been a bit on hiatus from writing, but it hasn’t stopped me from watching all the things. As an update, I’m about halfway through Brad Dourif sans Deadwood. More on that is coming soon. I have a backlog of fun stuff to talk about, and I’m ready to get back into the action.
In April, I decided to celebrate my birthday and the birthday of John Waters by watching all of his feature films. I had seen most of them, but there were a few that had escaped me. I would have watched the short films as well, but many of them have only been screened at festivals and are shown at art museums that I do not live close to. C’est la vie.
John Waters is hands down one of my favorite directors. I think his comedy and social commentary on suburban America is unmatched by any of his peers. His juxtaposition of filth to modern suburbia is just perfection. This journey was an absolute blast, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
While I will attempt to rank his films here, it will be rather hard. I absolutely love John Waters, and I genuinely believe that each film has its own merits. As such, not only will these films get a rank, they will each get a superlative as well. Normally, I would have some great criteria for this ranking, but this is just flat out my own personal preference.
Feature Film Ranking
#1 — Cry-Baby
Superlative: Best Musical Giving 50’s Suburbia the Finger
Cry-Baby was the first John Waters movie I watched. It was on TV all the time in the 90s. I have probably seen this movie at least 200 times, and it has remained my favorite over the years. It’s not just because I thought Johnny Depp was hot AF as Glen in Nightmare on Elm Street either. This is pure gateway drug John Waters. The script, the melodrama, the songs, and the cast all make this film perfection. I could easily write a 5,000 word essay on this movie and all of the things I love about it. However, I will not bore you with that. If you have never seen this, stop what you are doing right now and watch it. Your day and your life will be vastly improved. Some hero even put it on DailyMotion.
#2 — Mondo Trasho
Superlative: Most Influential Throughout His Career
Mondo Trasho was one of the movies I had not seen prior to April. It easily skyrocketed up my charts with style and panache that is the bedrock of all John Waters films that come after it. It is the first full-length film he made, and it is a masterpiece. Shot in black and white, this movie is at times a silent film with a killer soundtrack. You will notice themes and shots used throughout the rest of his early career. I highly recommend this one. You can find it streaming for Free.99 on YouTube.
#3 — Pink Flamingos
Superlative: Most Iconic John Waters Film
When you ask most people “what do you think of when you think of John Waters” the two most likely answers that will come back are Divine and Pink Flamingos. This film is a masterclass in both filth and shock cinema. If you are like me, the first time you saw it you never could think about “Surfin’ Bird” the same way ever again. Once you look into the abyss and it stares back, there is no unseeing it. The writing in this movie is outstanding, and every cast member is pure perfection. If you weren’t sold by Edith Massey and her character’s obsession with the Egg Man, what should help seal the deal is the actual burning trailer.
#4 — Serial Mom
Superlative: Best Lead Actress Performance
If you are anything like me, you absolutely have a love of unhinged Kathleen Turner. Seeing The War of the Roses really cemented my love of dark comedy, and a large part of my love for Serial Mom comes from Kathleen Turner’s absolutely stellar performance. By the time you add some John Waters regulars and Sam Waterston as the straight man husband, you get a serial killer that you are rooting for. Who else wouldn’t want to prank call Mink Stole?
#5 — Female Trouble
Superlative: Most LGBTQ+ Cultural Influence
The films of John Waters and Divine are all extremely important to queer culture and history. While we think of the look of Divine in Pink Flamingos as the quintessential Divine look, no plot is more referenced than Dawn Davenport and her damn cha-cha heels. When we really sit down and think about what Female Trouble is about, it was a John Waters tongue-in-cheek rebuke of the parents who shunned their children for being gay. It takes all of the evil tropes imparted onto the gay community and makes one big laugh fest out of it. Subversive humor is my favorite, and this one is no exception.
#6 — Hairspray
Superlative: Most Widely Accessible
The creative time Waters spends between Polyester and Hairspray really pays off here. No John Waters property has been as commercially successful as Hairspray. Spawning a bonafide Hollywood remake and Broadway musical, this is easily Waters’ most widely accessed property. The original cast in this movie is absolutely superb, and its social commentary on racism, big women, and big hair is just a hoot. While I think Cry-Baby has a bit more polish and rad musical numbers, Hairspray definitely deserves credit for helping Waters refine his musical chops. Hairspray is currently on its way to Tubi.
#7 — Multiple Maniacs
Superlative: Best Roadside Attraction
Multiple Maniacs is the other movie I had never seen prior to April. I grew up reading books about Lobster Boy and other sideshow attractions. I also have always been fond of the various versions of Freaks, especially Freaked. You can tell by watching this movie that John Waters also had an attraction to and affection for oddities. It is apparent how much fun they had making this movie, and it really picks up his filmmaking from where Mondo Trasho left off. The infamous lobster scene was hysterical, and I definitely won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. Multiple Maniacs is currently available on YouTube.
#8 — Cecil B. Demented
Superlative: Most Meta
When most filmmakers make movies about filmmakers, it bores me to tears. Cool, yet another movie about Hollywood people doing Hollywood things. Just what I needed. However, that is not the case at all in Cecil B. Demented. Rather than glorifying Hollywood, Waters pays homage to guerilla filmmaking. Chocked full of movie references and a cast of colorful characters, Cecil B. Demented soars with fantastic performances by Stephen Dorff and Melanie Griffith. It’s supid, it’s fun, and it’s always worth a watch. Cecil B. Demented is currently streaming on Tubi.
#9 — Desperate Living
Ever wonder what a post-apocalyptic John Waters movie might look like? The closest thing we will likely ever have is Desperate Living. Replete with fantastic costumes and sets, Mortville looks like something straight out of an 80s Italian post-apocalyptic movie. While this movie has a great cast, nobody shines in it quite like Edith Massey. Every scene she is in is a complete show stopper. Honestly, I wish we could have seen her do her own sketch comedy show because her characters are just so fun. Some hero has put it up on Vimeo for your viewing pleasure.
#10 — A Dirty Shame
Superlative: Most Likely to Break Sexually Repressed People
I had not seen A Dirty Shame since it came out. That was clearly a mistake. Upon revisiting it, I was reminded of how much I have been missing the completely outstanding performances by both Johnny Knoxville and Tracey Ullman. Growing up, I watched a lot of The Tracey Ullman Show, and she is still a comedic force to be reckoned with. She has great fodder to play off of in Knoxville’s character Ray Ray, who is somewhere between a shaman and the snake in the Garden of Eden. Together on screen their chemistry is undeniable, and it is a blast to watch. Had there not been a lull in this movie, it would have easily been towards the top of my list.
#11 — Pecker
Superlative: Most Autobiographical
This movie just feels like the 90s. In the 90s, I was obsessed with both Edward Furlong and Christina Ricci. Their pairing in Pecker is the stuff nostalgia is made of. This movie has always seemed to me like John Waters telling a portion of his own life story. Given how vibrant the odd characters are in this movie, it feels like Waters has known them most of his life. Jean Schertler steals the show as Memama, the granny who talks to her Virgin Mary statue. This is a feel good story that, while very good, is not my favorite of the Waters catalogue.
#12 — Polyester
Superlative: Most Transitional Film
As the last in the string of original Waters films, Polyester is a movie that feels like it’s a little old hat. I watched most the Waters filmography in order, and by the time you get to this movie very little is a surprise anymore. I suspect Waters was a bit burned out by the time he made this movie, as it does not have the same fresh energy of the other early films. However, Edith Massey is awesome in this movie. Her character of the maid who inherits a fortune and has a debutante ball is hysterical. She’s the most down ass friend to Francine (Divine), and her performance cannot be missed. Polyester is free to watch on Archive.