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Early Muddied Waters: Mondo Trasho Review

OK. Here’s a quick pop quiz to see if you should subject yourself to the early John Waters effort Mondo Trasho. A monochrome image wobbles up on the screen (your downloaded print is taken from an ancient VHS) as the film starts. A medieval executioner stands over a chicken he is placing on a plank, as inappropriate surf guitar music twangs merrily away. From behind a large chunk of concrete the executioner pulls a big axe and cuts the heads off not one but two real chickens, in graphic close-up. The camera lovingly lingers on their feather-shedding, decapitated bodies as their carcasses flop and jerk into a shallow stream. Then the opening credits come up over a shot of a spilled bag of rubbish. Do you:

A) Immediately turn the film off, wondering what the fuck you just watched?

B) Immediately turn the film off, waiting to proceed until you stop coming hard, hoping for more fowl-based atrocities?

If the answer here is A, do not watch Mondo Trasho. If the answer is B, you need psychiatric help, ya chicken-loathing fuck, but will certainly enjoy this deranged wee effort.

You know, when John Waters films are talked about, it’s often Pink Flamingos that gets all the attention, for obvious canine coprophile reasons. What many people do not realise is that the bad taste-pimping lifelong Baltimore resident directed a clutch of other short and feature-length films before that 1972 breakout scum epic. After the monochrome shorts Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), Roman Candles (1966), and Eat Your Makeup (1968), the Pope of Trash (as William S Burroughs called him) made his first full-length feature, Mondo Trasho (1969).

These days, Waters says, of the feature’s 87-minute running time, that it ought to have been 20, and he’s right. There is a lot of extraneous crap in it. But at the time, Mondo Trasho represented a leap forward for him film-length-wise. He had previously written, directed, edited, and acted in all his previous shorts, but placed himself firmly behind the camera in this feature. He had a scuzzy, offensive, sleazy vision to hone, after all, and clearly needed to point all his attention in that viewfinder crackpot direction.

Mondo Trasho introduces us to a blonde bombshell (played by Waters regular Mary Vivian Pearce; none of the characters in the film get a name in the credits) who goes for a walk and gets on the bus, reading the infamous Hollywood scandal book Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger. The tone is set already by this tome’s inclusion. And by the dead chickens, too, I suppose. She gets off the bus and goes for a walk in a park, sitting on a park bench. Some scumfuck creeps out of the bushes and shrimps (licks her shoes/feet) her for ten brain-deadening, horribly overlong minutes. She fantasises about being Cinderella. We see some random well-dressed, middle-class young women attacking her and tearing her clothes off. And why not? This scene is only the first of many shoe/foot fetish scenes in the film, and we get a wee vibe from Waters: he’s footloose and fancies feet. Fair enough.

Next we encounter the much-missed superstar Divine, another blonde bombshell. She’s driving a red 1959 Cadillac El Dorado convertible, looking sharp as fuck. I know absolutely bugger all about cars, and yet know the colour and make, in a monochrome film. I am brilliant, eh? Well, that and a cop later in the film mentions the colour and make. Distracted by a nude hitchhiker, she accidentally runs down Pearce’s character.

Bundling her into the vehicle, she does what any sensible citizen would do: goes shoplifting in a nearby clothes store and then goes to a launderette to replace Pearce’s bloodied ones. She takes her back out to the car, but it gets stolen, so she purloins a wheelchair and wheels her injured hit-and-run-victim around in it. The rest of the film then just basically is the two women being thrown into strange situations involving a mental hospital and a doctor’s office before ending, well, you’d have to see how it turns out if you’re still watching, you sick, chicken-chopping-choking freak.

This truly is a very strange wee film. The acting is mostly pretty bad, with most of the actors looking like a pack of late 60s ‘peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps’ (to quote the perv-knowledgeable James Ellroy) who look at the camera randomly, and aren’t much taking things seriously. Just looks like a load of pals having a party and a laugh as they make a film, really. If you want 87 minutes of two women being put upon and attacked randomly by life, the universe and everything and everybody, this film is definitely for you. The two blondes stagger and stumble and bleed from one wacked-out situation to the next, and by the end we’re wondering what further indignities the director can pile on them, just because, well, he can. This film is from Waters’s angry phase, where he was still more scary than charming. It’s actually pretty creepy, in amidst also being pretty boring and amateurish, which is a fine, rare combination to pull off.

Any Waters fan (and I am a huge fan of his – Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living are three of my favourite films) will recognize the seeds of some the then-23-year-old’s later themes, from stuff like crime as fame, sexually perverse and ludicrous acts, and twisted, jet-black humour. The nightmarish, transgressive (a word I hate, cos it’s impossible to be ‘transgressive’ in a world as sick and insane as ours) impact of some of the wackjobby stuff going on is somewhat muted by the extremely amateurish, unfocussed camerawork and editing.

But still, there’s enough of a cringe-cum-chuckle factor left in stuff like the foul chicken start, a woman being raped with a bag over her head (the lovely Mink Stole, a heroine of mine, who does a great, way-overlong topless tapdance scene), a stabbed, topless woman (lot of female nudity here for a film by a gay man) dripping blood, a nurse vomiting on a patient, a woman having her legs cut off and chicken feet transplanted onto them…to make the film worth at least a single viewing. It certainly wouldn’t hold up much to (m)any more than that. I have no idea what’s with the fowl theme – Waters would have some chickens fucked in Pink Flamingos, which I suppose is at least a bit less cruel than chopping their heads off.

Waters’s childhood Catholic cult indoctrination background comes to the fore many times here, and Mondo Trasho is a very theologically straight film for him. As a straight-laced character here, Divine is very penitent about running over the blonde, and when she prays or feels lost the Virgin Mary appears to her a few times during the running time. Watching the proceedings, you can totally just see an upper-middle-class good Catholic gay guy rebelling angrily against his religious and societal background, and this is what makes for great disgusting, sick, hilarious, cinema a couple of films and years later in his career. He was trying so hard to be shocking it’s almost impossible to take it seriously. Except for the chickens getting their heads cut off, that is.

The long-deceased, brilliant David Lochary (who either died from a drug overdose, or from accidentally cutting himself whilst wasted and bleeding to death – never quite found out the right story – anybody know?) puts in a couple of appearances, and he’s as great as ever. As Doctor Coathanger (wait, his character has a name, now that I think about it – just that nobody else’s does, for some reason), he shoots heroin (looks like he really does it, and looks wasted as Hell) and cuts off a character’s legs with, at first, a huge log saw. But when that’s not sharp enough, he comes out with a Stihl saw and chops the dame’s pins right off, for the aforementioned chicken-leg transplant, nurse-puking scene. The whole skit plays like something straight out of Naked Lunch, with Coathanger being a backyard Dr. Benway, and Burroughs had to be an influence on it. Lochary’s mother Mimi puts in an appearance right at the end of the film, dubbed by her son. How the fuck they convinced her to be in it is anybody’s guess. Wonder if she ever even saw it.

The Mondo Trasho soundtrack is extremely interesting. The film was shot silent, with small bits of very poorly-synched of dialogue here and there. The whole soundtrack comprises pop songs from the likes of The Trashmen, Elvis, Little Richard (a Waters hero) Jefferson Airplane and such, as well as hymns, classical music, and the odd bit of film or play music/dialogue. Whatever song is playing always relates to what a character is thinking or going through on-screen, using lyrics for dialogue, which is something I have never seen done before, or since. Mind you, that’s cos nobody makes silent films anymore, but that’s a moot point, really.

The musically eclectic soundtrack is the reason why this film has never been released on DVD, except in bootleg form; the last official release Mondo Trasho seems to have been on VHS in 1987 in America. Some nutter is trying to sell that tape for $6,800 on eBay right now which, if you believe Wikipedia, is over three times the budget for the whole film! Aye right! Not buying any of yer swampland either, ya mad Yank cunt! The rights to the dozens (!) of pop songs on it would be insanely prohibitive for a bad mesh of surrealist-cum-sorta-realistic manic mayhem that’s really is only of real interest to hardcore Waters fans, or chicken murder fetishists. You have been warned.

About Graham Rae

Graham Rae has been writing about weird and wonderfueled cinematic oddities for nearly 30 years. He started off writing for the legendary Deep Red, and since then has been bounced around like a human pinball around such venues as Film Threat, American Cinematographer, Cinefantastique, and Realitystudio.org.. A selection of his genre writings are available at www.facebook.com/raewrites, and he runs a Mad Foxes page on Facebook too. You have been warned.

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