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New Line Home Cinema presents
Polyester / Desperate Living (1981 / 1977)

"Am I living in Hell? Is that it? Have I gone straight to Hell?"
- Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole)

Review By: Dale Dobson  
Published: September 20, 2001

Stars: Tab Hunter, Divine, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, Liz Renay
Other Stars: Edith Massey, Mary Vivian Pearce, Jean Hill, Stiv Bators
Director: John Waters

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, violence, nudity, crude humor)
Run Time: 02h:56m:36s
Release Date: September 04, 2001
UPC: 794043523120
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+B+ A-

DVD Review


"Gee, Francine! You're the most drinkin'est gal I know!"ˇCuddles Kovinsky (Edith Massey)

Cult filmmaker John Waters took his first step towards mainstream acceptance with the 1981 Polyester, starring Divine as suburban housewife Francine Fishpaw and 1950s' heartthrob Tab Hunter as Todd Tomorrow, the dashing lover who promises to take her away from her depressing existence. Shot on 35mm with a reasonable budget and fairly broad distribution, Polyester remains one of Water's most popular efforts.

The plot is straightforwardˇpoor Francine, trapped in a soulless suburbia, is exploited and betrayed by her porno-peddling husband Elmer (David Samson), foot-fetishist son Dexter (Ken King), loose daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington), and opportunistic mother La Rue (Joni Ruth White). Sinking into an alcoholic funk, she chances upon a gruesome roadside accident where she meets wealthy, handsome Todd Tomorrow. Divine (in one of his most sympathetic screen roles) seems completely sincere and feminine, managing a darkly funny portrayal of personal pain, and Tab Hunter sends up his Hollywood screen persona with verve and great good humor. Waters' Dreamland-era regulars Mink Stole and Edith Massey appear as Elmer Fishpaw's cornrowed secretary and Francine's retarded friend Cuddles, respectively, and Mary Vivian Pearce and Sharon Niesp turn up in small parts.

Waters' sense of humor takes a more subtle turn here as compared to his earlier, louder films, but he succeeds in targeting bluenoses, nuns, hippies, and community standards at large with wit and comic exaggeration. Jokes about abortion, suicide, alcoholism and glue-sniffing may not be everyone's idea of humor, and the film's dark, melodramatic lighting looks distinctly non-comedic, but Waters' sensibility makes it all work somehow. Movie buffs will enjoy the scenes at an art-house drive-in, where animated champagne and caviar promote the concession stand and the featured attraction is a triple-feature of Marguerite Duras films. I've always enjoyed the nuns who send their unwed-mother charges on frequent hayrides, even in the rain; the "reformed" Dexter and Lu-Lu, whose vices are replaced with constructive but unsettling new obsessions; and Elmer Fishpaw's gleeful promotion of his porno-house movie theatre. Polyester is social satire, Waters' take on the absurdities of modern life; it's a bit hit-and-miss, but when it hits it really connects.

Desperate Living

"Seize her and f--- her!"ˇQueen Carlotta (Edith Massey)

When neurotic mental outpatient Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) and her overweight maid Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill) accidentally murder Peggy's husband, the two head for the hills to avoid prosecution. A perverted motorcycle cop (Turkey Joe) points them towards Mortville, a secret village where people mortified by their criminal misdeeds can seek refuge and avoid prosecution. Peggy and Grizelda rent a room from butch lesbian Mole (Susan Lowe) and her glamorous girlfriend Muffy (Liz Renay). The filthy living conditions in Mortville are only made worse by the despotic Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey), who imposes absurd regulations for her own amusement and executes those who disagree with her. When the Queen's goons kill nudist garbageman Herbert (George Figgs), secret lover of Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pearce), a revolution takes shape.

Desperate Living is Waters' most overtly political comedy, a twisted fairy tale about fascism and feminism laced with gruesome visuals and a not-so-subtle sense of cultural outrage. Divine (unavailable due to a theatrical commitment) is missing in action, but most of the other Dreamland stars are on hand, rising to the occasion with strong, over-the-top performances. Edith Massey is great fun as Queen Carlotta, her "outsider" acting style perfectly suited to the obscenely declamatory ruler; Mary Vivian Pearce is rather touching as the star-crossed Coo-Coo, infected with rabies by her own mother, and Susan Lowe brings enthusiastic menace to the role of Mole McHenry. Abortive sex-change operations, roach-eating, necrophilia, a dead dog and a baby in a refrigerator supply the shock value, while a bizarre lesbian club, an army of bums and perverts, and Queen Carlotta's portrait gallery of dictators and serial killers invert American cultural norms to hilarious effect.

In his DVD commentary, John Waters mentions that Desperate Living was reviled by gay women when it was first released (the title was borrowed from a downbeat Sapphic newsletter), but is now a popular item at lesbian film festivals. The sense of humor evident here has held up for nearly twenty-five years, and is probably even more effective in today's climate than it was in 1977. More coherent, pointed and meaningful than Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living is an unjustly overlooked gem from Waters' early years.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyesyes

Image Transfer Review: New Line presents both films with striking new DVD transfers. Polyester is presented in its 1.85:1 theatrical widescreen aspect ratio, with a sharp-looking anamorphic transfer. Shadow detail is excellent, preserving the dark tones and muted colors of the Douglas Sirk-inspired lighting, with a crisp, solid image befitting Waters' first 35mm productionˇthis is the first time I've been able to see the film-stock difference between Polyester and Waters' earlier films. Best of all, the widescreen transfer restores a long-invisible "Cinerama" gag at the beginning of the film, unseen for years in pan-and-scan VHS and television transfers. The low-budget Desperate Living is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio; the source print has some flecks and brief scratches, and the shot-on-16mm production is fairly grainy. Vincent Peranio's colorful production design comes through well, and the digital transfer preserves the film's underground look. Neither film is a big-budget production, but both look better than they've ever looked before on home video.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Polyester is presented with a Dolby 2.0 Stereo Surround track, as well as its original monaural audio, while Desperate Living is in original mono only. Both films sound dated, with slightly tinny "live" dialogue and reedy music, though Polyester is significantly more polished. I was surprised to hear a number of subtle sound effects in Desperate Living that I'd missed in previous releases, and Waters' intense, over-the-top, hard-to-deliver dialogue is entirely comprehensible in both cases. Again, these films are audibly low-budget, but the DVD clearly delivers every echo and pop.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by director John Waters (both films), with star Liz Renay (Desperate Living)
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Polyester in ODORAMA
Extras Review: New Line's 2-disc DVD set includes 39 chapter stops (18 for Desperate Living, 21 for Polyester) and optional English subtitles (pity the poor person charged with rendering Waters' outrageous dialogue in stark, white text!) Several worthwhile supplements enhance the discs:


A standard, welcome feature on any John Waters DVD is a running commentary by the writer/director, who has never been unwilling to discuss his work. His memory has faded a bit on production details here, but his anecdotes, jokes and technical notes are consistently entertaining and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. He is joined by star Liz Renay on Desperate Living, whose remarks were recorded separately, interview-style, and edited into the main commentary. Renay is a charming, frank older woman now, whose genuine affection for the film (as well as, apparently, for breasts and male genitalia) comes through loud and clear, as does her infectious laughter. Both commentaries are great fun and a significant bonus, although it's a shame some deleted scenes mentioned by Waters during his Polyester track were not available for inclusion.

Theatrical Trailers:

Both films' theatrical trailers are included on-disc. Polyester's trailer pushes the "Odorama" gimmick, of course; it's otherwise fairly mainstream in its approach, with a Hollywood-pro voice-over that seems oddly out-of-place. The Desperate Living trailer was clearly designed for the late-night cinemas and art houses that ran Waters' early films, definitely R-rated fare with significant nudity, foul language and general grossness. Both are valuable parts of the historical record.

Polyester in ODORAMA:

This is a sure sign of New Line's commitment to qualityˇa new batch of "Odorama" scratch-and-sniff cards has been printed up for inclusion with this DVD release. Now the complete Polyester experience can be replicated at homeˇwhen number, say, "2" flashes on the screen, simply scratch the numbered spot on the card and inhale deeply. Consider the auteur, and don't say we didn't warn you!

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

John Waters' Polyester and Desperate Living are two of the cult director's trash classics, poking joyful, liberating fun at American society and mores. The comparatively slick and mainstream Polyester balances the raw, outrageous Desperate Living nicely, and New Line's DVD presentation is sure to please, with entertaining commentaries and full ODORAMA support for Polyester. Recommended, but definitely not for the easily offended.


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