Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) is in a bad way, having just been released from a mental hospital on the orders of her husband (George Stover) who thinks she will blossom in the home environment. It doesn't seem to have worked out that way as she constantly screams that someone is trying to assassinate her and everyone around is out to send her back to the asylum, but she has more problems when her husband has a to-do with her maid, Grizelda (Jean Hill). She has been stealing from him and drinking his booze, but events come to a head when Peggy attacks him and Grizelda finishes the job by sitting on his face...
There's a reason why Desperate Living wasn't quite as well thought of as director John Waters' other works of the nineteen-seventies, and that's because a certain someone was missing. With no Divine in the cast - he was tied up with a play and unable to appear - this was regarded as a missed opportunity, and though there were those who would tell you it was Waters' most polished effort of the decade which made him famous (or notorious), that still didn't bring in the audiences who had made his previous, Divine-led films hits on the midnight movie circuit. Yet if you were willing to overlook that absent piece of the trash jigsaw puzzle, then there was much to amuse.
Depending on how strong your stomach was, of course, as even if Desperate Living was viewed as not quite full strength Waters, there was some pretty extreme stuff here nonetheless. Much of it centred around the town of Mortville, a location in the middle of a forest near Baltimore whose construction led to this being the most expensive of this director's movies to date. This was another sticking point for the fans: without polite society, or some kind of realism at least, for his characters to rail against, then it might as well be science fiction, though it was actually his intention to create his own brand of fairytale, which explained why even for a John Waters flick everyone was acting with absurd childishness.
Peggy and Grizelda went on the run after their crime, and after getting stopped by a motorcycle cop who turns out to be a raging pervert who steals their underwear, they are told by him to flee to Mortville where all the criminals go. Once there they get a room with ex-wrestler Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) - who lives here because she killed a man (yes, a man) in the ring, not to mention the referee - and her girlfriend Muffy St. Jacques, played by the closest thing Waters had to a traditional movie star to that point, Liz Renay. She had been a gangster's moll as well as a stripper and hardcore film participant, but for many, and indeed for herself, this film represented her best outing on celluloid, being one of the first outsiders invited into Waters' circle who truly got his sensibility.
Then there's Edith Massey, Queen Carlotta of Mortville, who turns the film into something akin to an anti-monarchist rant after we see how she treats her subjects, from the ridiculous - Backwards Day where everyone has to walk and dress backwards to look like idiots - to the far meaner, such as her grand plan to give the populace rabies so as to wipe them out in a fit of pique. That was a problem, as after a while the cracked dialogue dried up and with it the laughs, leaving a nasty streak a mile wide, no matter that as in any good fairytale the evildoers got their comeuppance; another drawback was Hill was such a great find, and genuinely hilarious in places, that when she exits the story it left a void (not only on the visuals, either). With its curious mixture of colourful yet miserable imagery, it remained recognisable as a Waters' movie, but once it picked up steam it transformed into a wacky horror movie testing the limits of the audience's humour, not always successfully. Music by Chris Lobingier and Allen Yarus.
Witty American writer/director, the chief proponent of deliberate bad taste in American films. His early efforts are little more than glorified home movies, including Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, but with the notorious Pink Flamingos Waters found his cult audience.