If Female Trouble (1975) is John Waters‘ greatest narrative film, then Desperate Living (1977) is his inimitable descent into a surreal, kitsch abyss that few could imagine. Desperate Living is Waters’ personal, alternative universe to the parallel world of Busby Berkeley. Seen today, Berkeley’s films are a surreal wet dream, a perverse man’s big budget fairy tales. Waters filmed his perverse anti-fairy tale on a meager budget three years after Female Troubles, although he had substantially more money here than on his previous films. Budget or no, Desperate Living is just as grandiose and epic as anything Berkeley ever produced.
Star Divine was not available due to other commitments so Waters tapped Mink Stole, who more than makes up for the loss (additionally, Waters regular David Lochary died of an overdose shortly before filming). The film opens with a bang in the form of a brilliant, in-your-face, unhinged preamble from Stole as Peggy; the most delightful sociopath to ever grace the annuls of independent cinema. Peggy discovers her filthy, sodomite whelps playing doctor’s office and goes berserk. To make matter worse, Peggy’s bore of a husband, Bosley (George Stover) catches Grizelda, their 400 pound maid (Jean Hill), nipping at the jack so he decides to fire her. Enough is enough, so Grizelda conks Bosley over the head and suffocates him by sitting on his face.
Grizelda tells Peggy, “I am now your sister in crime, bitch!” Peggy, avoiding the same fate as Bosley, goes along with her former maid. The coupling of Peggy and Grizelda is comically deranged, literally climaxing with Grizelda forcing Peggy to give her oral sex as she screams out, ‘Eat it! Eat it!”
The two are on the run, and Peggy is disturbed by the surrounding beauty of nature: ” You know I hate nature! Look at those disgusting trees, stealing my oxygen. Oh, I can’t stand this scenery another minute. All natural forests should be turned into housing developments! Don’t we taxpayers have a voice anymore?” The two are soon stopped by a copper (scene stealer Turkey Joe) who tells them about a Pleasure Island called Mortville, where every pervert, nudist, and psychopath can feel at home. He promises to let them go there if they will only give him their panties and a sloppy kiss. Joe literally salivates on Grizelda’s stained panties and writhes in ecstasy as he wishes Grizelda would suck out his eyeballs. Chore done, Peggy and Grizelda are on their way.
Mortville is, essentially, a cardboard town with psychedelic sets (brilliantly designed by Vincent Peranio) that, for sheer lunacy, could rival and surpass Ed Wood‘s sets for Bride of the Monster (1955).
Queen Calotta (Edith Massey) is the matriarchal Nazi dictator of Mortville. Carlotta’s hands are full with her rebellious daughter, Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce), who wants to get married to a nudist camp garbage man and live the suburban dream. Carlotta’s answer to this dilemma is to kill her would be son-in-law and teach the town a lesson by spreading rabbies through Mortville with a batch of rat urine. Peggy and Carlotta’s leather-clad studs are on hand to carry out every whim of the evil Queen. ” Whip it out” she orders one of her studs. “I like meat and potatoes, I’m going to have to spank you for arousing royalty!” she screams, before he plows her furrow in her queen-size bed (you have to see it to believe it and I’m not joking). By comparison, Ming the Merciless is a wimp. Ming would certainly never have the lack of class to utter lines like, “Seize her and f__k her.”
Peggy and Grizelda rent an outhouse from two lesbians, Mole and Muffy (Waters regular Susan Lowe and Liz Renay—yes, that Liz Renay, the burlesque queen and gangster). Lowe and Renay do wonderful turns in their roles. Lowe’s Muffy performs a quickie sex change via rusty scissors and whines, ” now I have a Barbie doll crotch.” Still, despite Muffy’s dead babies and dog food, the film belongs to Massey and Stole and they both seem to be having the time of their lives.
The midnight cult film scene was about to permanently change. Waters had one more film to go, the similar, but polished Polyester (1981); then, in 1984, Massey would join Lochary, followed by Divine in 1988. Desperate Living is really the last film in which everything came uniquely together for Waters in what was undoubtedly his era, when he was a powerful and influential visionary who literally took film goers to the edge of their seat (and often sent them running out the door).