Image for Cult Cinema: Pink Flamingos (1972)

Cult Cinema: Pink Flamingos (1972)

Written by Philip North on July 24, 2009

PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)
Dir: John Waters
Starring: Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, David Lochary.

If there were such a thing as an archetypal cult movie, it may very well be John Waters’ 1972 film Pink Flamingos. It is the very antithesis of Hollywood and displays the key characteristics of the cult film: cheaply made (on a budget of $US250), with very poor production values, amateur performances, a largely non-professional and unknown cast, and without the advantage of mainstream theatrical release, a dedicated following which has grown solidly in the years following its release. Its status rivalled that of the Rocky Horror Picture Show with underground midnight screenings and audience participation.

Its theme sets it apart immediately from anything else: it is the story of two grossly deviant women vying for the title of the “filthiest people alive”. Babs Johnson (Divine in perhaps the first major role for a drag queen on screen) and her family live in a pink trailer in the woods. Outside is a pair of plastic pink flamingos (an ironic reference to the conventions of middle class suburbia). Inside is Devine’s demented egg obsessed mother (Edith Massey with the genuinely atrocious accent that made her a cult star) who spends her days in a baby playpen in her underthings awaiting with excitement the daily arrival of the egg delivery man.  Their urban competition, the Marbles (Mink Stole and David Lochary), sport fluorescent flame red and blue hair dyed with marker pens and live in nearby downtown Baltimore where they run a supposedly respectable adoption clinic. It is, of course, a front for kidnapping teenage virgins, imprisoning them in the basement for impregnation by their butler to sell their babies to lesbian couples; naturally the proceeds are used to sell heroin in high schools. This is just the tip of a vast iceberg of perversity. It is daring enough today but in 1972, it was at the coalface of shocking.

As if this were not enough, this self proclaimed “exercise in bad taste” pushes the boundaries in almost every scene: a concert features a nude performer lip syncing a song with his exposed anus, a live chicken is pressed between a nude copulating couple and later eaten, Divine contaminates her competitor’s home by licking and rubbing all the furniture while investigating police are murdered and eaten in a climactic orgy of cannibalistic decadence. In one final delicate gesture, Divine proves to the world that she is not only the filthiest person alive but also the filthiest actress by scooping up and devouring freshly excreted dog faeces (filmed in one take from dog to mouth to prove its veracity).

Buried under this cornucopia of excess, however, is a surprisingly incisive commentary on the values of middle America and the seedy underbelly lying just beneath its shallow veneer of propriety.

As with many cult films, its strength lies in its ideas and its energy rather than in its execution. It displays almost no cinematic finesse, with rudimentary camera work, sound, editing and truly appalling performances. Its triumph, however, is its delight in its own amateurism, deviance and excess. No other film exercises as little restraint as this and breaks so many taboos with so much joyful amateur enthusiasm. It is at once one of the most disgusting and one of the funniest films ever made. As one of the exiting viewers commented at an early screening, “It was kinda gross – but I liked it!”

Pink Flamingos is available on DVD and still screens in cult cinemas around the world.

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