Directed By: John Waters
Starring: Liz Renay, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe
Tag line: "It isn't very pretty....."
Trivia: Newspapers refused to run the original ad for this film, a photo of a cooked rat on a plate
Immediately after the opening credits sequence (which, for the record, features a cooked rat sitting on a dinner plate), John Waters’ Desperate Living takes us to an average suburban neighborhood, with kids playing baseball in the front yard of what appears to be a beautiful, spacious home. If normalcy is your thing, make sure you pay close attention to these first few minutes because this is as “normal” as the movie is going to get. If, however, you’re a John Waters fan, and you enjoy the occasional trek into the world of trash cinema, then hold onto your seats; Desperate Living is about to take you on a ride you won’t soon forget.
The fun begins when one of the kids hits a baseball through an upstairs window, causing housewife Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole), who’s just returned home from a stay at a mental institution, to lose complete control of herself (she shouts out the window at the young boy who hit the ball, accusing him of trying to kill her and adding that she hates both him and his mother). It’s during this fit of rage that Peggy, with the help of her nurse Grizelda (Jean Hill), accidentally murders her husband Bosley (George Stover). Realizing what they’ve done, the two women try to flee, only to be tracked down by a transvestite policeman (Turkey Joe) who, instead of dragging them off to jail, banishes Peggy and Grizelda to Mortville, a makeshift town ruled by Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey) that’s home to some of the worst scum imaginable. Shortly after their arrival, Peggy and Grizelda meet Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and her lover Muffy St, Jacques (Liz Renay), who re nice enough to rent the newbies a room. But when the Queen discovers that her only daughter Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pierce) has been dating a nudist garbage man named Herbert (George Figgs), it sends shock waves through all of Mortville, causing some residents to take up arms and rebel against the Queen and her tyrannical ways.
Yes, it’s a very strange synopsis, but not nearly as strange as the characters that inhabit this bizarre world. As played by Mink Stole, Peggy Gravel is an unstable upper-class snob with a persecution complex; after the incident with the baseball, she screams into the telephone at a caller who dialed the wrong number. The caller tries to apologize, but Peggy will have none of it. “How can you ever repay the last thirty seconds you have stolen from my life?” she shouts, adding “I hate you, your husband, your children, and your relatives!” While slightly more together than her employer, Mrs. Gravel’s nurse Grizelda has issues of her own (an obese kleptomaniac, it’s she who kills Mr. Gravel by sitting on his face and smothering him).
It’s when the ladies hit the road, however, that we meet some truly disturbed people, like the cop who steals their underwear, then orders both women to give him a kiss. He’s the one who tells them to hightail it to Mortville, where they encounter Mole and Muffy, two lesbians who once led semi-normal lives. During a flashback sequence, we learn that Muffy had a husband (Roland Hertz) and child. After returning home from a night out, Muffy discovered that the babysitter they hired (Pirie Woods) had invited her friends over for a party, during which she forgot to keep an eye on the kid. When Muffy found the toddler crying inside a closed refrigerator (a very controversial scene when the film was first released), she got so angry that she murdered the babysitter by pushing her face into a bowl of dog food. She’s been hiding out in Mortville ever since. As for the extremely hostile Mole, she was a professional wrestler who came to Mortville after killing an opponent. It’s Mole’s hope that she can one day afford a sex change operation, at which point she’ll finally be the man Muffy deserves. Most outrageous of all is Queen Carlotta, an insane ruler whose ridiculous decrees have made her unpopular with her subjects. Portrayed by Edith Massey (who played the egg-loving Edie in Waters’ 1972 classic Pink Flamingos), Queen Carlotta is surrounded by leather-clad henchmen she forces to have sex with her (Desperate Living doesn’t shy away from sexual content, but beware: not a single sex scene in this film is the least bit erotic. In fact, they’re all pretty disgusting).
A movie filled to the breaking point with hilarious dialogue and outlandish situations, Desperate Living is an equal opportunity offender, taking shots at everyone from doctors and policeman to lesbians and nudists. Featuring 90 minutes of total insanity, Desperate Living is John Waters at his gross-out best.