John Waters is an American filmmaker, writer, and artist known for his provocative and subversive works that challenge societal norms and conventions.
He began his career making low-budget, underground films in the 1960s and 1970s, and has since become a cult icon and an influential figure in the world of independent cinema.
Here are some of the best John Waters films, each with its own unique style and perspective:
Pink Flamingos (1972) – Often considered Waters’ most notorious film, Pink Flamingos follows the outrageous exploits of the “filthiest person alive,” Divine, as she battles against a rival family for the title.
Female Trouble (1974) – Female Trouble is a dark comedy that follows the rise and fall of Dawn Davenport (played by Divine), a delinquent teenager who becomes a criminal and a cult celebrity.
Polyester (1981) – A satire of suburban life and melodramatic soap operas, Polyester tells the story of a housewife named Francine Fishpaw (played by Divine), who tries to keep her family together despite their dysfunctional behavior.
Hairspray (1988) – Hairspray is a cheerful musical comedy that celebrates diversity and inclusivity in 1960s Baltimore. The film stars Ricki Lake, Divine, and Debbie Harry.
Cry-Baby (1990) – A rock and roll musical set in 1950s Baltimore, Cry-Baby stars Johnny Depp as Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, a teenage rebel who falls in love with a good girl from the other side of the tracks.
Serial Mom (1994) – A dark comedy about a seemingly perfect suburban housewife (played by Kathleen Turner) who has a secret life as a serial killer.
Each of these films showcases Waters’ distinctive style, blending elements of camp, satire, and transgression with a wicked sense of humor and an affection for the underdogs and outsiders of society.
Best John Waters Movies
Whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer to his work, John Waters’ films are sure to surprise, shock, and delight.
1. Eat Your Makeup (1968)
“Eat Your Makeup” is a 1968 short film directed by John Waters, who later became known for his cult films such as “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray”.
The film is a black and white parody of Hollywood and the beauty industry.
The film follows a group of models who are kidnapped by a crazed makeup artist and forced to participate in his gruesome art projects.
The film is shot in a surreal, avant-garde style and features elements of absurdism and black comedy.
Despite its low-budget and experimental nature, “Eat Your Makeup” is notable for featuring early appearances by several of John Waters’ regular collaborators, including Divine, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Maelcum Soul.
The film was originally screened as part of a multi-media performance art show called “The Cavalcade of Perversion”, which also featured live performances by Divine and other members of Waters’ troupe.
The show was a controversial underground hit and helped to establish John Waters’ reputation as a provocative and subversive filmmaker.
2. Mondo Trasho (1969)
“Mondo Trasho” is a 1969 experimental film directed by John Waters, who later became known for his cult films such as “Pink Flamingos” and “Hairspray.”
The film is shot in black and white and features a series of loosely connected vignettes depicting the lives of various characters living on the fringes of society.
The film’s plot follows a young woman named Mondo (played by Mary Vivian Pearce) who wanders through various Baltimore neighborhoods, encountering a cast of eccentric characters, including a woman who is obsessed with chickens, a couple who make out in a cemetery, and a group of hippies who perform a mock crucifixion.
The film is notable for its raw, low-budget aesthetic, its experimental editing techniques, and its willingness to explore taboo subjects and themes.
“Mondo Trasho” also features a soundtrack consisting of eclectic pop and rock music from the 1960s.
Although “Mondo Trasho” received mixed reviews upon its release, it has since become a cult classic among fans of underground cinema and John Waters’ work.
The film is celebrated for its provocative and irreverent approach to storytelling, and for its influence on the development of the “Midnight Movie” genre.
3. Multiple Maniacs (1970)
“Multiple Maniacs” is a black comedy film directed by John Waters and released in 1970. The film follows a traveling sideshow called the Cavalcade of Perversion, which consists of various grotesque and sexually explicit acts.
The show is run by a woman named Lady Divine (played by Divine), who is also a petty criminal.
The plot revolves around Lady Divine’s descent into madness and violence, as she and her fellow performers engage in a series of increasingly outrageous and shocking acts.
These include robbing patrons of the show, staging fake rapes and murders, and engaging in various forms of sexual depravity.
The film was made on a very low budget and has a deliberately rough and amateurish style. It is characterized by its extreme and transgressive content, including scenes of nudity, drug use, and blasphemy.
“Multiple Maniacs” was a controversial film upon its release and was heavily censored in many countries.
Despite its controversial subject matter, “Multiple Maniacs” has since gained a cult following and is regarded as a seminal work of underground cinema.
It is considered one of John Waters’ most important and influential films, and is notable for its role in the development of the “midnight movie” phenomenon.
4. Pink Flamingos (1972)
“Pink Flamingos” is a 1972 transgressive black comedy film directed by John Waters, known for his unconventional and boundary-pushing filmmaking style.
The film stars Divine, Waters’ long-time collaborator and muse, as Babs Johnson, a woman who lives in a trailer with her mentally ill mother and her promiscuous son.
When a couple named Connie and Raymond Marble, who run an underground pornography ring, move in next door and start a feud with Babs, things quickly escalate into a bizarre and disturbing series of events.
The film is notorious for its extreme and graphic content, which includes scenes of murder, rape, and incest. However, it is also celebrated for its unapologetic and subversive portrayal of queer and counterculture communities, as well as its satirical take on American society and values.
Despite its controversial reputation, “Pink Flamingos” has become a cult classic and a defining work of the transgressive cinema movement. It has influenced numerous filmmakers and artists who seek to challenge societal norms and push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in art.
Overall, “Pink Flamingos” is a shocking and unforgettable film that defies categorization and challenges viewers to confront their own notions of morality and taste. It is not for everyone, but for those willing to venture into its twisted world, it is an experience unlike any other.
5. Female Trouble (1974)
It’s important to note that “Female Trouble” was not directed by Nicolas Roeg, but rather by John Waters.
While Roeg was a masterful filmmaker in his own right, it’s worth acknowledging the contributions of other filmmakers as well.
That being said, “Female Trouble” is a cult classic of American independent cinema, known for its outrageous humor, shocking content, and subversive commentary on American culture.
The film follows the misadventures of a young woman named Dawn Davenport (played by drag queen Divine) who dreams of becoming famous and glamorous, but instead finds herself in a series of bizarre and violent situations.
While the film’s content may be controversial and not for everyone, it is widely recognized as an important work of queer cinema and a landmark of the underground film movement of the 1970s.
The movie’s themes of gender, identity, and societal norms are still relevant today, and its impact on independent cinema cannot be understated.
6. Desperate Living (1977)
Desperate Living is a 1977 dark comedy film directed and written by John Waters. The film stars Mink Stole, Liz Renay, and Jean Hill. Desperate Living is known for its outrageous plot, provocative themes, and use of grotesque imagery.
The film follows the story of Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole), a housewife who accidentally kills her husband and is sent to a mental institution.
After escaping with her obese nurse Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill), they find refuge in the town of Mortville, a place where outcasts and social misfits live together in a lawless society.
There, they become involved in a series of bizarre and violent incidents, including a plot to overthrow the town’s evil queen, Carlotta (Edith Massey).
Desperate Living is a parody of suburban life, consumer culture, and gender roles. Waters uses his signature style of campy humor, grotesque imagery, and social commentary to critique the repressive and conformist values of mainstream society.
The film has become a cult classic and is considered one of Waters’ most outrageous and provocative works. It remains a testament to his unique vision and his willingness to push boundaries and challenge conventional norms.
7. Polyester (1981)
“Polyester” is a 1981 American comedy film directed by John Waters and starring Divine and Tab Hunter. The film is a satirical take on suburban life and melodramatic soap operas.
Divine plays Francine Fishpaw, a housewife and mother who must contend with her cheating husband, delinquent children, and the pressures of keeping up appearances in her conservative community.
Tab Hunter plays Todd Tomorrow, a local hunk who becomes romantically involved with Francine.
The film features a unique gimmick, “Odorama”, which allows viewers to experience the same smells as the characters on screen by scratching and sniffing numbered cards provided at the theater.
The film’s soundtrack also features music by 1950s and 1960s pop artists such as Connie Francis and Little Richard.
“Polyester” is notable for its over-the-top performances, outrageous humor, and satirical critique of traditional gender roles and societal norms.
The film has been described as a “camp classic” and a key work in the development of queer cinema.
While the film received mixed reviews upon its release, it has since gained a cult following and is considered a landmark film in the career of John Waters and the subgenre of campy, offbeat comedies.
8. Hairspray (1988)
“Hairspray” is a 1988 musical comedy film directed by John Waters. The film is set in Baltimore in 1962 and tells the story of a plucky and overweight teenager named Tracy Turnblad (played by Ricki Lake) who dreams of dancing on a local TV show called “The Corny Collins Show.”
Despite being ridiculed by her classmates and society at large for her size, Tracy refuses to be discouraged and sets out to break down the barriers of racial segregation on the show.
Along the way, she becomes involved in a variety of hilarious and heartwarming situations, including a budding romance with the show’s heartthrob, Link Larkin (played by Michael St. Gerard).
The film features an all-star cast, including Divine, Debbie Harry, and Sonny Bono, among others, and features an energetic and catchy soundtrack consisting of original songs and classic hits from the 1960s.
Upon its release, “Hairspray” received critical acclaim for its irreverent humor, infectious music, and heartwarming message of inclusivity and acceptance.
The film has since become a cult classic and has been adapted into a successful Broadway musical and a 2007 film adaptation starring John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer.
9. Cry-Baby (1990)
“Cry-Baby” is a musical romantic comedy film directed by John Waters and released in 1990. The film is set in 1950s Baltimore and tells the story of a group of teenagers known as “drapes,” who are distinguished by their outsider status and rebellious style.
The film stars Johnny Depp as Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, the leader of the drapes who falls in love with a “square” girl named Allison Vernon-Williams (played by Amy Locane).
The two come from very different worlds, and their romance is complicated by their different social backgrounds and the disapproval of their families and peers.
“Cry-Baby” is characterized by its campy and over-the-top style, which is typical of John Waters’ films. The film features musical numbers and dance sequences that pay homage to 1950s rock and roll and doo-wop music, and also includes elements of satire and parody.
The film was generally well-received by critics and performed modestly at the box office.
It has since become a cult classic and is notable for helping to launch Johnny Depp’s career as a leading man. “Cry-Baby” is also significant for its role in the resurgence of interest in 1950s nostalgia in popular culture in the 1990s.
10. Serial Mom (1994)
“Serial Mom” is a 1994 black comedy film directed by John Waters and starring Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, a suburban housewife who appears to be the perfect wife and mother.
However, beneath her pleasant exterior lies a dark and violent secret: she is a serial killer who targets anyone who crosses her or her family.
The film satirizes American suburban culture and the media’s obsession with true crime, as well as gender roles and the expectations placed on women.
It features an all-star cast, including Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, and Matthew Lillard, and is known for its witty dialogue and over-the-top violence.
Despite its macabre subject matter, “Serial Mom” is a hilarious and entertaining film that blends dark humor with social commentary.
Kathleen Turner’s performance as Beverly Sutphin is a highlight of the film, as she manages to make the character both terrifying and charming at the same time.
Overall, “Serial Mom” is a fun and subversive film that challenges viewers’ expectations and delivers a unique and memorable cinematic experience. If you enjoy black comedies and satire, this film is definitely worth checking out.
11. Pecker (1998)
“Pecker” is a film directed by John Waters and released in 1998. The movie tells the story of a young man named Pecker (Edward Furlong) who lives in a working-class neighborhood in Baltimore and works at a sandwich shop.
Pecker is an amateur photographer who captures the quirky and idiosyncratic people and places of his community on film.
His photographs are discovered by a New York art dealer (Lili Taylor) who brings him to the big city and turns him into an overnight sensation.
As Pecker’s fame grows, he begins to experience the pitfalls of success, including exploitation and backlash from his own community.
The film is a satirical commentary on the art world and the commodification of culture, as well as a celebration of the eccentricities and resilience of working-class communities.
While “Pecker” may not be as well-known as some of John Waters’ earlier works, it is still a charming and witty film that showcases the director’s irreverent humor and love for the offbeat.
Edward Furlong delivers a strong performance as the earnest and likable Pecker, and the supporting cast includes such luminaries as Christina Ricci, Mary Kay Place, and Martha Plimpton.
12. Cecil B. Demented (2000)
Cecil B. Demented is a 2000 black comedy film directed and written by John Waters. The film stars Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, and Alicia Witt.
It tells the story of a renegade group of underground filmmakers called the Sprocket Holes, led by the eccentric and fanatical director Cecil B. Demented (Dorff), who kidnap a famous Hollywood actress, Honey Whitlock (Griffith), and force her to star in their guerrilla-style film.
The film is a satire of Hollywood and the movie industry, as well as a celebration of the art and passion of independent filmmaking.
Waters uses his trademark humor and irreverence to poke fun at the glamour and excess of Hollywood, while also highlighting the creativity and rebellion of underground filmmakers.
Cecil B. Demented is also notable for its use of metafiction, as the characters in the film are aware that they are in a movie and often break the fourth wall to address the audience.
Cecil B. Demented received mixed reviews upon its release, but has since gained a cult following for its subversive humor and celebration of independent cinema.
The film is a testament to Waters’ love of movies and his willingness to take risks and challenge established norms.
13. A Dirty Shame (2004)
“A Dirty Shame” is a 2004 American sex comedy film directed by John Waters and starring Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, and Selma Blair.
The film follows a middle-aged, repressed woman named Sylvia Stickles (Ullman) who suffers a concussion and subsequently becomes a sex addict, joining a group of similarly afflicted individuals known as “neuter” or “sexual deviants.”
As Sylvia explores her newfound sexuality and joins forces with fellow “neuters” to fight for their rights, she becomes embroiled in a battle with the conservative, uptight residents of her Baltimore neighborhood, who want to shut down the local strip club and prevent the “neuters” from expressing their sexuality.
The film features Waters’ signature irreverent humor, over-the-top performances, and boundary-pushing subject matter. It has been noted for its frank and humorous portrayal of sexuality and the repression of desires in modern society.
While “A Dirty Shame” received mixed reviews upon its release, with some critics praising its humor and social commentary and others finding it tasteless and crude, it has since gained a cult following and is considered a bold and subversive entry in John Waters’ filmography.
14. Kiddie Flamingos (2015 Video)
“Kiddie Flamingos” is a 2015 short film directed by John Waters, which is a “sweded” remake of his controversial 1972 cult classic film “Pink Flamingos.” In “Kiddie Flamingos,” all of the original actors and their graphic actions are replaced by a cast of young children who reenact the film’s infamous scenes.
The film is shot in the same style as the original, with intentionally low production values and intentionally absurd humor.
The children perform scenes involving profanity, nudity, and other adult themes, all with a childlike innocence that makes the film simultaneously humorous and disturbing.
Waters created the film as an exploration of the boundaries between childhood innocence and adult themes in art, as well as a commentary on the impact that his own controversial films have had on popular culture.
While the film has been praised by some as a clever and thought-provoking critique of society’s attitudes toward taboo subjects, it has also been criticized by others for its potentially exploitative use of child actors and its disregard for issues of consent and age-appropriate content.
3 Characteristics of John Waters Films
John Waters is a highly influential American filmmaker known for his unconventional and provocative approach to cinema. Some of the key characteristics of his films include:
Subversion of societal norms: Waters’ films often challenge traditional values and societal norms, exploring taboo subjects such as sexuality, gender identity, and religion.
He frequently uses humor and satire to critique mainstream culture and to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in cinema.
Emphasis on outsider culture: Waters’ films often feature characters who are social outcasts, misfits, or members of subcultures. He celebrates and humanizes these characters, giving them agency and portraying them with empathy and understanding.
This emphasis on outsider culture has made Waters a cult figure and an inspiration to alternative and counterculture communities.
Campy and over-the-top style: Waters’ films are characterized by their exaggerated and flamboyant style, with bold colors, outrageous costumes, and melodramatic acting.
He often uses intentionally low-budget production values and exaggerated performances to create a deliberately kitschy and theatrical aesthetic. This campy style has become a trademark of Waters’ work and has influenced many other filmmakers and artists.
3 Reasons Why You Should Watch John Waters Films
Subversive and Provocative Filmmaking: John Waters is known for his subversive and provocative filmmaking style, which often challenges societal norms and pushes the boundaries of good taste.
His films tackle taboo subjects with humor and wit, and often feature unconventional characters that defy stereotypes.
Unforgettable Characters: Waters’ films are known for their unforgettable and larger-than-life characters, many of whom are played by his regular collaborators, such as Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey.
These characters are often outsiders and misfits who don’t conform to society’s expectations, making them relatable and endearing to audiences.
Satirical and Irreverent Humor: Waters’ films are often described as dark comedies, with their satirical and irreverent take on American culture and values.
His films use humor to critique societal norms and challenge audiences to question their own beliefs and biases.
In summary, John Waters’ films offer a unique and unforgettable cinematic experience, with their subversive and provocative filmmaking, unforgettable characters, and satirical and irreverent humor.
If you are a fan of boundary-pushing cinema and dark comedy, John Waters’ films are definitely worth checking out.
Best John Waters Films – Wrapping Up
In conclusion, John Waters is a filmmaker who has made a lasting impact on American cinema, particularly in the realms of independent and queer cinema.
His films are known for their irreverent humor, subversive themes, and celebration of the unconventional and outsider perspectives.
Some of his most acclaimed works include “Pink Flamingos,” “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” and “Serial Mom.” These films pushed the boundaries of taste and decency, while also providing sharp social commentary and satire.
Other notable works include “Female Trouble,” “Desperate Living,” “Polyester,” and “Pecker,” all of which showcase Waters’ unique vision and sense of humor.
Even his more mainstream works, such as the 2007 adaptation of “Hairspray,” have a distinctive Waters flavor that sets them apart from other Hollywood productions.
Overall, John Waters’ films are not for everyone, but they are undeniably important contributions to the world of cinema, particularly for marginalized communities.
His influence can be seen in the works of many contemporary filmmakers, and his legacy will undoubtedly continue to inspire and provoke audiences for years to come.
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