How do you start off a conversation with the iconic filmmaker John Waters? The Baltimore native, who began shooting silent 8 mm and 16 mm films in the mid-1960s, gleefully embracing and fetishizing gore and violence, earned the monikers “The Pope of Trash” and “The Prince of Puke” for Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. But as his work attracted broader audiences (culminating in PG and PG-13 fare like Hairspray and the Johnny Depp-led musical Cry-Baby), critics and fans alike came to appreciate the cultural and social commentary lurking in his playful excesses.
He’ll be in Cincinnati on Friday for opening night of the three-day HorrorHound Weekend at the Sharonville Convention Center. At 9 p.m., he presents his stage show This Filthy World: Filthier and More Horrible.
Horrorhound has such other guests as Tobin Bell (The Saw films, Manson Family Vacation) and C.J. Graham of Jason Lives.
Since our chat was in support of his appearance at HorrorHound, I figured asking Waters about his definition of a horror movie would be the obvious intro, and he begins with a typically sly dig: “Personally I would say romantic comedies. I scream more during those than anything else…”
It was one of those truth-telling jokes that we would get back to before I let him go, but he rebounded with a more routine take centering on Jordan Peele’s current box-office hit Get Out. Waters raved about the film’s ability to hit its intended target — white liberals.
“Conservatives are too easy,” Waters says. “White liberals are never forced to confront or admit to the racist things they say.” There’s certainly a level of cover afforded to the left-leaning side of the political spectrum, and Waters has never been afraid to pinch the nerves or poke at the sensitive spots of those who perch there.
As a critic, I’ve written more than my share of pieces on the rise and fall of torture porn without taking the time to consider how the movement found traction in the first place. Waters lays the blame on Scream. He concedes that the 1996 feature from horror aficionado Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson was well-made, but “once you start picking away at the horror, replacing it with humor and genre-skewering satire, you defang it, and it has taken a long time for horror to recover (from that),” he says.
At HorrorHound, Waters will present This Filthy World one time only on Friday. Regular tickets are $35. But a special $85 “premiere ticket” is already sold out; it offers purchase of a special meet-and-greet with Waters at his convention table, as well as a signed copy of his book Carsick and a photo opportunity with him.
Waters likens this phase of his career to the latter years of the legendary Vincent Price, an iconic figure he was fortunate to encounter once. Price, like many older stars of horror films, kept busy with personal appearances for admirers of the genre.
When we got back to the joking reference to romantic comedies as a horrific bane of his existence, what emerged was a sad and familiar commentary on the Hollywood film industry as a whole.
“What you see (in romantic comedies) is the film-by-committee approach, with too many writers working to satisfy an audience,” he says. “And we know you can’t satisfy anyone that way.”
His career certainly proves that he never sought the approval of anyone other than his own muse. It is easy to judge or label his sensibilities or those of the dedicated ensemble of performers who joined his creative collective, but the trail Waters blazed continues to mark the way for filmmakers like Tom Six, whose extreme Human Centipede trilogy is unlike anything else in obliterating boundaries and norms.
Economies of scale might set Waters and Six apart from the legion of regional DIY dreamers and visionaries out there, the very patrons of HorrorHound. But the daring aesthetic to be yourself and write your filthy fears and obsessions on the largest canvas possible will never die.
John Waters’This Filthy World: Filthier and More Horrible screens Friday at HORRORHOUND WEEKEND. Tickets and more info: horrorhoundweekend.com.