The films of John Waters, shocking and bizarre they may be, are each a different form of deeply personal works. The location of all these films is his hometown of Baltimore. His earliest films were cast entirely of his closest friends, who still make cameos in later works. Everything between characters and major plot points to minor touches of flavor are representations of his varied obsessions. Waters has always been very open about the stuff that intrigues him – art, serial killers, cults, movies, and the oddest imaginable sex acts. So, even with a minor Waters film as Cecil B. Demented, it overflows with the personality of its creator, though it’s not exactly welcoming to those unaware of Waters.
Cecil B. Demented’s origins appeared as an essay in Waters’ book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, a collection of essays by the filmmaker. In the essay, also titled Cecil B. Demented, Waters outlines what would years later become, well, Cecil B. Demented. When one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), holds the premiere for her latest romantic comedy in Baltimore, a gang of violent, idealistic filmmakers led by Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff) kidnap the starlet. Retained in their compound, Honey has to hear the sermons the angry auteur as his gang of misfits prepare her for her greatest role starring in Demented’s grand opus. Armed to the teeth with cameras rolling, Demented and his gang, named the Sprocket Holes after the perforations on film strips, stage a number of assaults on bad cinema including a strike on a mall multiplex showing the director’s cut of Patch Adams. But the fickle, image conscious Hollywood elite, including Eric Roberts and Kevin Nealon, turn their backs on Honey. Before long, she’s a willing participant in Demented’s unique brand of violent cinéma vérité.
The Sprocket Holes are a collection of misfits dedicated to the new found virtues of outlaw cinema. Each one of them proudly wear tattoos of their favorite filmmakers. There’s Cherish (Alicia Witt), the former pornstar trying to turn serious actress with Andy Warhol as her auteur; Lyle (Adrian Grenier), the leading man with a rapidly growing drug addiction and Herschel Gordon Lewis as his filmmaker of choice; Lewis (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.), the set designer with David Lynch inked on his knuckles; Chardonnay (Zenzele Uzoma), head of the sound department who bears the mark of Spike Lee; Raven (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the Satanist makeup artist with, unsurprisingly, Kenneth Anger as her chosen director; Rodney (Jack Noseworthy), the hairstylist who is ashamed of his heterosexuality bears the mark of Pedro Almodovar; Pam (Erika Lynn Rupli), the cinematographer who proudly displays her Sam Peckinpah tattoo; Dinah (Harriet Dodge), the film’s producer who has facial hair and Samuel Fuller ink; Fidget (Eric Barry), the twitching costume designer with William Castle emblazoned on his chest; and, finally, Petie (Michael Shannon), the gay driver whose tattoo advertises the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. And their dear leader, Cecil, wears the name of Otto Preminger on his arm. Adding an extra layer of dementia, each member of the Sprocket Holes has taking a vow of “celibacy for celluloid.”
This collection of freaks and weirdoes stage assaults on the attempts of Hollywood to work in Baltimore. When they attack a meeting of film executives, confronting them with their questionable decisions, Waters uses his characters as a mouthpiece for the frustrations of cinephiles everywhere. When asked why he greenlit a remake of a foreign film an executive exclaims, “You know American audiences won’t watch subtitles.” Another executive nervously defends himself, “It wasn’t my idea. I’m just the vice president of creative affairs.” It represents something we see time and time again, studio executives dodging responsibility for making dreadful films. But there’s a hint of prescience here. The art house theaters have been disappearing. Independent film is in state of flux. While it has become fashionable to blame this on the proliferation of superhero films, the actual culprit is the rise of the streaming services. Most theater chains won’t show films that are released on VOD at the same time. Without theaters showing the movies in theaters, people wait for them to appear on Netflix and other services. And these services do expand the accessibility of independent cinema, however, they don’t offer the financial reward for investors to back these types of films. And, of course, the studio executives approach movies with the attitude of a compulsive gambler, always playing for the big payoff.
Honey Whitlock’s transformation from starlet to outlaw is in part a result of Stockholm syndrome, though her transformation isn’t rooted in the search for artistic credibility. Everything that Whitlock does is about seeking attention and public validation. She embraces the world of Demented because it has reinvigorated the public’s fascination with her while Hollywood shuns her. Before her grand finale, Whitlock channels the essence of Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard. “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. Demented,” she says before igniting her hair on fire for the cameras. When the dust has settled and more than half of the Sprocket Holes have met their demise, Whitlock is arrested for her role in the chaos, taking a slow walk in front of the cameras of the press like Desmond before her.
And problems that afflict independent cinema have affected the film career of Waters as well. It has been over a decade since his last feature film A Dirty Shame. Plans for a Christmas film entitled Fruitcake were scrapped at the last minute. Since then Waters has taken to writing books and doing live shows. While Cecil B. Demented isn’t one of Waters’ finest works, it is a film that encapsulates Waters’ love for cinema and the bizarre of all sorts. And with audiences flocking to bad cinematic efforts like Fifty Shades of Grey and American Sniper, we need a Cecil B. Demented of our own. Or just another John Waters movie. They’re one in the same really.