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It Came From the Cultosphere: John Waters’ Disturbed ‘Female Trouble’

It’s hard to remember these days — when John Waters plays the role of the grand old man of pop culture, writing witty essays about Johnny Mathis or lending his voice to commentary tracks on ‘Mommy Dearest’ — that the guy with the pencil-thin mustache was once considered genuinely dangerous.

Long before he hit the big time with ‘Hairspray’ (the 1988 comedy that spawned the 2002 Broadway hit that spawned the 2007 John Travolta musical), the idea of Waters directing a PG-rated film was more shocking than anything he’d delivered in his sordid (but successful) career. And keep in mind, this was a guy who, more than anything, owed his pre-‘Hairspray’ fame to a scene where a 300-pound transvestite ate a dog turd.

No special effects, no cuts, no kidding.

That scene was in ‘Pink Flamingos,’ Waters’ legendary 1972 film that, frankly, plays more like an endurance test than an actual movie. There are funny lines, sure, and Divine is a force of nature, but if you pop it in your player looking for a few laughs, you’re going to want to brace yourself first.

Our advice? Watch Waters’ 1974 follow-up instead. ‘Female Trouble’ is less well-known than ‘Flamingos’ (lacking, as it does, that landmark dog-turd scene), but it’s much more entertaining – if your idea of entertainment is a little, shall we say, flexible.

‘Female Trouble’ tells the story of Dawn Davenport (Divine), a rebellious teen who storms out of her house on Christmas morning when her parents don’t give her the cha-cha heels she so desperately wants. While hitchhiking, Dawn winds up being ravaged by a repulsive oaf (also played by Divine, in which must be some kind of cinema first) and soon has a bratty daughter (Mink Stole) to make her life that much more awful.

But Waters is a loving cinema god, and he throws Dawn a life preserver in the form of the Lipstick Salon, a beauty parlor run by a couple of lunatics (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce) who believe “‘violence is beauty.” Naturally, they see loose cannon Dawn as the apotheosis of this ideal, and before long, Dawn has achieved stardom – along with a trip to the electric chair.

If your idea of a “cult movie” is a gently amusing indie romance or some sub-Tarantino action romp, ‘Female Trouble’ might surprise you. Released in an era when the only place a movie like this could play was at some midnight screening, it’s got a genuinely nasty outlook and the sort of unhinged performances you just don’t see in more “respectable” films.

By any normal standards, it’s not a good movie, but every so often, it comes close to being a great one. It has a real energy and sense of crazed enthusiasm, and Divine, as always, is amazing to watch. It’s packed with memorable moments (just try and forget that birth scene!), and bubbling under every single shaky frame is a genuinely unnerving viewpoint.

Waters is, by all accounts, a sweetheart of a guy, but after watching a movie like this, you’ll definitely see him in a different light. That sense of danger might be gone in this era of Tony Awards and mainstream acceptance, but anyone who once dedicated a movie to the Manson Family (as ‘Female Trouble’ is, believe it or not), will never, ever be completely family-friendly.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about the Manson Family. And in this case, we guess we are.

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