Desperate Living (John Waters, 1977, USA)

               Desperate Living, the last entry in John Waters’ trash trio, arrived on the scene in 1977 – just as the midnight movie was collapsing. In some respects, the film is the darkest of the trilogy, showcasing a sense of humor that is even grimmer than Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble. The film is also the first feature directed by Waters to not feature his muse Divine, who was starring in a play at the time. This makes the film in a way better off than his others, as it allows the other Dreamlanders – including Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, and Edith Massey – to shine. On another hand, Divine fans might find her absence problematic, in that there is no enthusiastic protagonist to cheer for.

               Mink Stole plays Peggy Gravel, a delusional housewife, who must go on the lam with her 400-lb housemaid Grizelda (Jean Hill) after Grizelda smothers her husband to death. Peggy and Grizelda take refuge in the shantytown of Mortville, where they become friends with Mole McHenry, a lesbian wrestler, and her partner – Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay). Though she had appeared in films previously, Liz Renay was primarily notorious for being the moll of famous gangster Mickey Cohen. Waters’ had a great eye to bring her from the burlesque circuit into the fold of cult films, where she had a long career. Waters’ other discovery, Jean Hill, is also truly a wonder to behold.

               The sets by Vincent Peranio are truly tacky brilliance. Peranio constructed most of the shantytown using garbage, but there is a visual flair and style on display which is truly unique. Edith Massey returns in the film to play Queen Carlotta, the evil ruler of Mortville. She takes part in some truly outrageous scenes, including a finale which stretches bad taste even by Waters’ loose standards. Desperate Living might not be Waters’ best film, but it is still worth visiting Mortville.



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