Dir: John Waters, 2000. Starring: Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon. Cult.
There was an attractiveness to having this be my first John Waters movie. As a growing cult fanatic, I found it odd that I'd never seen any of Waters' films, and, I'll admit, I assumed that he was too much of a staple in the cult-world; his fans seemed to be fond of him more than the movies. Moviegoers and Waters fans, from many different tastes, claimed that this was his worst movie. The steadfast remarks intrigued me, so I went and saw it at a revival theater thinking, "…well, it can only get better, apparently." The struggle to not judge the film too harshly was diminished as soon as the introduction credits came on. Mismatched red and black marquee letters (common for revival theaters) poked fun at mainstream cinema by having fake titles like Forest Gump 2 appear on the lineup and dissolve into a cast or crew members' name. From the beginning it was clear that Waters was a man who liked details, and I was allowed to then be rid of doubt.
The movie opens with a buzz over actress Honey Whitlock's (Melanie Griffith) premiere of her latest mainstream flop. The premiere is in Baltimore, and she turns just about every silent moment to herself into an occasion of bantering and disrespect of the town and its civilians. Meanwhile, a young group of misfits has infiltrated the theater's staff at the venue which is to house the event. Whispering mini-manifestos into walki-talkies for encouragement and prepping their alarming amount of explosives and ammunition, they eagerly await Honey's arrival. Their mission, headed by Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff), is to kidnap the star and force her to act in their one and only underground film. Their message: take back the cinema, or more appropriately, death to bad cinema (as in blockbusters).
The kidnapping is completed, but there is a casualty, so soon the group is wanted for murder. Still, they are determined to go on and introduce themselves to Whitlock. The group contains a mixture of nervous individuals, from a Satanist, Raven (Maggie Gyllenhaal), to an ex-porn star who's a nymphomaniac, named Cherish (Alicia Witt). They live in an abandoned movie theater and have stolen every piece of equipment that is stored there for the movie. Each member has their favorite director tattooed on their body, and each has chosen a path of temporary celibacy until their film is complete, which they've coined "celibacy for celluloid." Cecil goes to Honey and explains that she is a washed up star who, even in her prime, acted in nothing but terrible movies. In doing so, he is met with hostility and prejudice, but this doesn’t stop him from transforming her into his cult star. Her hair is bleached and razor-cut and her costume designer and make-up artist make her look like a traditional Waters star. At first, Honey is resistant to their demands, but she eventually gives in and plays along with their game, while at the same time not realizing that she is doing some of her best acting and creating a truly memorable character.
The movie is about a married couple and their daughter who are stunned by the lack of patronage at their art-house theater and decide to go on a violent spree across town in attempts to terrify ordinary moviegoers. Honey soon discovers that Cecil's movie involves real violence, which is filmed in real-time, leaving no room for mistakes and plenty for bloodshed. As the authorities get hip to their open shoot-outs, members of their group are killed and Honey must eventually choose a side to give her loyalty to.
As a cinefile, I found the message of the movie to be tastefully absurd, and yet captivating. I can only compare it to the thrill of a young man seeing Fight Club for the first time; there is an appeal to having violence and beliefs seem so personal to your own logic, yet taken to a murderous extreme. And for Waters in 2000, I can only imagine the difficulty of getting his films made. While cult cinema did well in the '70s and '80s, once the '90s rolled around, there was a big emphasis on dramas and actors who wanted to out-Oscar the next person. With Cecil B. Demented, it is as if Waters was laughing at the world, and himself, but more specifically Baltimore (where he's from), and wanted you to be in on the joke. For that reason, and many others, I felt an admiration for the filmmaker and an excitement to see all his other movies.
To be fair, I was biased by the film's cast, which includes Michael Shannon (The Runaways, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), a big favorite of mine, and even a young Adrian Grenier (Entourage). Still, the plot and the direction of the movie made me disagree with the claim that this is Waters' worst film. That might seem funny since it's the only one that I've seen, but I don't agree that "better" or "stronger" necessarily equates to "consistent with all others." I can tell that this and some of the later works are much different than the staples, but that doesn’t mean that they're bad. Even if I end up liking those more than this one, I'm still happy about the ability to go backwards in his filmography. Highly Recommended.