The Pope of Filth himself, John Waters, writes and directs a movie in which a group of terrorists kidnap a high-society type, who is at first forced into helping them, before finally converting to their cause. The concept is already open to many bad-taste moments, but Waters steers clear of his usual in-your-face shock tactics and instead opts for a more subtle and subversive gag by having Patty Hearst play a roll in the movie.
Aside from the edited synopsis above though, the plot of Cecil B. Demented is (thankfully) not all that related to the facts of the Symbionese Liberation Army case; instead the terrorist cult, named The SprocketHoles, are a cult of “movie terrorists” lead by self-styled director, the titular Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff).
The Cult infiltrate a Baltimore cinema, which is hosting the premier of a-list actress, Honey Whitlock’s (Melanie Griffith) latest movie, and kidnap her in order to force her to star in their own film.
Crafting bizarre worlds has always been Waters’ strength; Pink Flamingoes gave us a world where perverts and filth mongers commit horrible crimes with no legal repercussions, and Desperate Living presented a city built from trash. Cecil B. Demented follows this pattern, presenting a movie-centric society, where Hollywood bigwigs are oyster guzzling elitists, and fans of various non-mainstream genres almost seem like gangs.
The script takes liberties with realism, even sense, at every turn; Cecil comes to be loved as a great director by underground film fans, even while his movie is in production, and the onset of Honey’s Stockholm syndrome is almost instant, however Waters crafts a superb off-kilter reality in which even the more nonsensical moments work well in spite of themselves.
There’s some truly inspired set design, particularly the SprocketHoles’ den, built in a disused cinema, and featuring a platform/bed for Demented himself built on a working camera crane, and there are dozens of great makeup and costuming choices.
In many ways, this is a John Waters movie done right; it still has all of his subversive sensibilities, but it has a budget and cast capable of realising them, without resorting to the amateurish melodrama that may put many people off his earlier work; that said, fans of his earlier work may find that the polish on this outing represents a submission to the very mainstream it works to attack.
I, however, have never ‘got on’ with the choppy style of his earlier work with his reparatory company The Dreamlanders, finding John Waters the man far more entertaining than his work, and for me this film brought enough of him to the screen, while still presenting an enjoyable, if silly, film. One that could never have found distribution post 9/11.
Not even your agent can save you now!