Waters Revisited: Mondo Trasho

John Waters has stayed and shot all of his film in Baltimore for practical reasons: “I have a whole crew there, and we know the city better than anywhere else.” There is another reason why Waters has favored Baltimore, as he explained: “It is the only place where I have friends who aren’t involved in showbiz, who aren’t always talking about movies, and who aren’t trendy.”

Although Waters lacks the mainstream success of Barry Levinson (“Diner” in 1982, or the Oscar winning “Rain Man,” in 1988) Baltimore’s other native son, in 1985, the Mayor of Baltimore has proclaimed the date of February 7 as “John Waters Day.”

With few additions, Waters has steadily worked with the same staff and crew. Pat Moran supervises the casting, Vincent Perenio the sets, and Van Smith the costumes. These continuous collaborations have given Waters a sense of security as well as a sense of belonging. He has formed an acting ensemble, holding that audiences like to see the same actors go from one film to another.

Waters’ films have relied on a regular troupe of actors known as the Dreamlanders. They have included Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Edith Massey, Susan Walsh, and Cookie Mueller. But above all, Waters’ films have served as star vehicles and platforms for the serious acting skills of Divine until he passed away, in 1989.

In 1969 and 1970, Waters wrote and directed “Mondo Trasho” and “Multiple Maniacs,” crude features shot in 16mm and in black and white. Alongside the shorts, they introduced Waters’ formative vision, defined by offensive satirical mode, bad taste, and camp humor—all of his trademark.

“Mondo Trasho,” the first feature directed by Waters, was a rough and amateurish comedy, in black-and-white, costing only $2,000. For long stretches of time, not much happens, and the “plot,” such as it is, is propelled by old rock songs.

This 95 minute long feature was shot entirely without dialogue. The center is occupied by yet another tormented woman (Mary Vivian Pearce) who has a terrible one-day, full of catastrophic adventure. Strolling through the park, she is accosted by a maniacal foot fetishist, who toe-licks (shrimps) her in the woods. After the seduction, she wanders alone out of the park to a road, where she is run over by Divine in a Cadillac convertible with the radio blasting.

To hide the crime, Divine takes the girl, shoplifts clothes and changes her look on a Laundromat table. The Virgin Mary and an angel appear in the Laundromat, granting Divine’s prayer with a wheelchair to wheel the girl off. They are abducted and taken to an asylum (an image might have been influenced influenced by the 1948 Hollywood asylum movie, “The Snake Pit”), inhabited by topless dancer and other bizarre-looking characters. The Virgin Mary arranges for a fur coat for the girl and for a knife for Divine to escape.

The plot begins with disaster for one girl, but then subjects both women to torment and torture. Committed to caring for the girl, Divine is put through trials of her own. Divine represents a mockery of beauty queen, a criminal redeemed though traumatic encounters with evil forces. In the climax, Divine brings the girl to a mad doctor with magic powers (David Lochary), who amputates her feet and replaces them with misshapen monster feet. The repugnant act brings the girl back to life.

Pursued by the evil-doers, Divine dies in a muddy pigsty, to the sound of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The girl awakens among pigs to shockingly discover her transmogrified feet. But the mad doctor has imbued her with magic powers: clicking her heels together, she can transport herself a la Dorothy in “Wizard of Oz.” In the end, she finds herself in Baltimore’s downtown shopping district, where two older women show disdain for her with their epithets: “Whore. B-girl. Rimmer. Slut.” The girl clicks her feet again and disappears.