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Desperate Living Reviews

Described by its creator as "a lesbian melodrama about revolution ... a monstrous fairy-tale comedy dealing with mental anguish, penis envy, and political corruption [whose] target audience is very neurotic adults with the mentalities of eight-year-olds," DESPERATE LIVING is the culmination of filmmaker John Waters's early quest to offend and shock audiences. Camp in the true sense of the word, it is as outrageous as it is hilarious, though many viewers will be too repelled to appreciate the humor. Against the advice of her psychiatrist, Baltimore socialite Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) is released from a sanitarium. Brought home by her husband Bosley (George Stover), Peggy's paranoia is exacerbated by everyday situations. Her frenzy increases when she finds her young children playing doctor, and when her husband tries to calm her down, she accuses him of trying to kill her. Peggy is rescued by her maid Grizelda (Jean Hill), a 400-lb. black woman who kills Bosley by sitting on his head. The two women flee. Outside the city, they are stopped by a cop (Turkey Joe) who refrains from arresting them in return for their underwear, which he tries on in front of them. He suggests they hide out in nearby Mortville, a shanty town for people who are mortified by their lives. In Mortville, Peggy and Grizelda rent a room in a house run by butch lesbian Mole (Susan Lowe), a former wrestler, and her girlfriend Muffy St. Jacques (Liz Renay), on the run from the law after suffocating her babysitter in a bowl of dog food. They are taken to the palace of Mortville's Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey), who tells them that Mortville exists only for her amusement before sending them to her "ugly expert" for a makeover. Distressed that her daughter, Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce), is having an affair with the janitor of Mortville's nudist camp, the Queen grounds her until her 40th birthday. When Coo-Coo sneaks out anyway, her boyfriend is shot to death by the Queen's guards. Coo-Coo drags the body to the rooming house. Grizelda tries to protect her but is killed when her efforts cause the house to collapse on her. Peggy turns the Princess over, and in doing so gains the Queen's favor. The Queen so hates the people of Mortville that she has Peggy concoct a serum to give them all rabies. Meanwhile, Mole wins the Maryland lottery with a ticket she stole from Peggy. She goes to Baltimore for the afternoon, where she buys a few guns, presents for Muffy, and a sex change operation for herself. But when Muffy is horrified by her new, surgically attached penis, she cuts it off. Disowning her daughter, the Queen orders her to be gang-raped by her guards and then injected with rabies. Mole and the others agree to help Coo-Coo seek revenge. With the guns Mole has purchased, they storm the castle. Peggy is shot to death, and Coo-Coo bites the Queen in order to infect her with rabies. To celebrate their independence, the Mortvillans roast and eat the Queen. DESPERATE LIVING would have been unendurable had this plot been approached with any degree of realism. Instead, Waters designed it as a sick fairy tale, filmed on sets so tacky that you wonder where he spent the $65,000 it cost. Even still, Waters manages to reach--and surpass--the limits of bad taste; it's hardly surprising that he moved to milder fare with his next film, POLYESTER (1981). The audience is given fair warning of what to expect with a credits sequence that shows an elegant dinner setting on which is served a fully cooked rat. DESPERATE LIVING has a fair share of scenes that are nearby impossible to watch, and in general is so willfully ugly that even tolerant viewers are likely to feel slightly queasy. What makes it worth watching is some of the funniest dialogue Waters's ever wrote, as well as endearing performances from members of Waters' acting troupe, here freed for the first time from the dominating shadow of Divine (who was unable to appear in the film due to contractual obligations to a stage show). Mink Stole is hilarious in the opening scenes as the hysterical matron Peggy, screeching at neighborhood children and complaining that the trees are stealing her oxygen. ("Don't we taxpayers have a voice anymore?!") It's a disappointment when Waters shifts her to the sidelines after the film moves to Mortville, where her rages subside. But the slack is picked up by the unique Edith Massey, extemporizing pornographic dialogue to her palace guards and referring to her daughter as "That little m.f.!" There are also amusing bits by the presumably pseudonymous Turkey Joe as the lingerie fetishist cop and even by notorious stripper Liz Renay, by no means as appealing a presence as Waters apparently thought but occasionally capable of attaining an appropriate ludicrousness. It's worth noting that, as much as Waters scorns political readings of his films, it's impossible to ignore one in the ending of DESPERATE LIVING, as the revolutionaries prepare to eat the carcass of a despot whom they had previously infected with rabies. (Graphic violence, extensive nudity, sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)