With his fifth feature, trash auteur John Waters came close to a perfect synthesis of irreverent comedy, rebellious attitude, and vulgar excess. Like most of his early efforts, however, the movie has too much shock-value material for its own good. Everything is pitched so loudly, in terms of disgusting visuals and histrionic acting and vile behavior, that Desperate Living becomes monotonous despite its upbeat tone. And while nothing in Desperate Living surpasses the apex of Waters’ onscreen grotesquerie (that would be the indelible image of enormous drag queen Divine eating real dog feces in Waters’ 1972 opus Pink Flamingos), it’s not as if Desperate Living wants for transgressive signifiers.
In no particular order, the movie features a babysitter who stuffs her young charge in a refrigerator; a close-up of an insect crawling out of someone’s rear end; a cop who makes women hand over their underwear so he can put the garments on himself; a disgusting matriarch who uses leather-clad dancing boys for sex slaves; an intercut scene that juxtaposes two energetic cunnilingus sessions (one gay, one straight); countless semi-explicit sex scenes featuring grossly overweight performers; and an incident of self-castration performed with scissors. Compared to everything else with which Waters bombards viewers, the big cannibalism scene at the end is tame. The thing about Waters, of course, is that he conveys such a strong sense of delirious joy while presenting outré images that he rarely seems mean-spirited, especially since the story of Desperate Living—as with most of Waters’ depraved narratives—celebrates freaks and skewers conformists. In fact, when it’s viewed as an over-top metaphor representing the beauty of inclusion and the evil of othering, Desperate Living is oddly inspirational.
To that end, the movie is constructed like a fairy tale. When the adventure begins, neurotic housewife Peggy Gravel (Mike Stole) enlists her maid/nurse, Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill), for help in killing Peggy’s overbearing husband. Then Peggy and Grizelda escape to Mortville, a remote shantytown inhabited by deviants and weirdos. Ruling over Mortville is the domineering Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey). As Peggy jockeys for position in Carlotta’s court, using insidious means to push likely successor Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce) out of the way, Grizelda joins with the “good” people of Mortville for a rebellion. Meanwhile, lots of screen time is devoted to the exploits of Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe), a bullish lesbian with a face full of sores who pursues a sex-change operation in order to wow her buxom girlfriend, Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay). Carnality, crime, and cruelty ensue. Waters, per his norm, exceeds the limits of good taste whenever possible, but he never loses sight of his underdogs-vs.-the-system theme. (It just happens that most of his underdogs are criminally insane.)
More importantly, Desperate Living has moments of laugh-out-loud absurdity, making it perhaps the most entertaining of Waters’ early films. Consider the moment when Peggy goes ballistic upon receiving a wrong-number call: “How can you ever repay the 30 seconds you have stolen from my life?!! I hate you, your husband, and your relatives!!!” Desperate Living is foul, tacky, and wrong, but that’s why it’s a fitting denouement to the first phase of Waters’ outrageous career—starting with his next picture, the comparatively restrained Polyester (1981), Waters began a steady drift into the mainstream, eventually making a pair of PG-rated studio comedies before inching back into extreme material.
Desperate Living: FREAKY