Whilst the films that John Waters makes are not horror films by a conventional standard, they contain enough trash to disturb, stun, and strike fear into the hearts of the middle classes. Waters’ Pink Flamingos may get all the glory as his most notorious piece of work, but fans know the pinnacle of his career is his Female Trouble – a darkly camp satire on crime, beauty and family life. Since the film opens on Christmas, I couldn’t resist the chance to feature it in our alternative Christmas countdown.
Female Trouble chronicles the life of Dawn Davenport (Waters’ muse Divine), a trouble-making Baltimore teen who doesn’t get the cha-cha heels she wanted for Christmas and subsequently runs away from home. Dawn soon embarks on a life of crime when she begins a career as a fashion model and is corrupted by two twisted photographers, Donald (David Lochary) and Donna Dasher (Mink Stole) – both obsessed with the beauty of crime.
In a wonderful moment of foreboding, Female Trouble opens with sixteen year old Dawn (in the form of 250-pound actor Harris Glen Milstead) smoking in the school locker room where she notes: “My parents are gonna be real sorry if I don’t get them cha-cha heels. I asked and I better get.” What follows is a moment of twisted comic genius set at the Davenport home on Christmas morning.
As Jingle Bells plays, Waters gives us a peak in the idyllic suburban home as Dawn’s sweet parents organise gifts under the tree. This peace is shattered when the gargantuan sixteen year old awakens, venomously muttering “I better get them cha-cha heels,” as her twee parents begin a rendition of Silent Night. An excited Dawn soon rushes to grab her present from under the tree – and unleashes a wave of terror when she realises her parents have given her flat shoes. As her father screams the iconic line “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels!”, Dawn smashes her parent’s gifts whilst her mother adds “Please Dawn! Not on Christmas!”
The skit reaches full comic hilarity when Dawn’s mother is thrown under the Christmas tree in a scuffle with her daughter. Waters’ casts the camera on the huge tree pinning the cutesy parent, resulting in big laughs, furthered as Dawn unleashes a tirade of “Fuck you” and “I hate Christmas!” whilst her pinned down Mother continues to repeatedly weep the line “Not on Christmas!”
This is black humour done Waters’ style, overloaded with over-the-top family melodrama, campy dialogue and the destruction of classical Christmas values in sheer flamboyant style. Whilst Christmas only features briefly here, the scene is so great at setting up Dawn’s descent into Baltimore’s criminal modelling world that I could not go without featuring it here.
You may be wondering where the horror fits in, and if willing to watch the full feature, Dawn’s descent into madness is equally comic and terrifying. After being scarred in an attack by her jealous neighbour, Aunt Ida (the great Edith Massey), the hideously disfigured ‘crime model’ Dawn becomes more and more depraved – ultimately resulting in her hilariously disturbing cavalcade of madness.