Cinema Fearité presents 'Cecil B. DeMented'
John Waters gets meta with his dark comedy 'Cecil B. DeMented.'
Last week, Cinema Fearité took a shallow dive into the artsy world of exploitation film with Pick-up. This week, we’re going to have a look at cult cinema. And cinema doesn’t get any more cult than John Waters. And John Waters doesn’t get any more cult than his 2000 meta-masterpiece Cecil B. DeMented.
Cecil B. DeMented is about a group of cinematic terrorists known as the “Sprocket Holes” who are led by independent film director Cecil B. DeMented (Stephen Dorff from The Gate). The Sprocket Holes have devoted their lives to making a film that will change cinema forever. The one thing they need is a leading lady. So, the gang kidnaps Hollywood starlet Honey Whitlock (Roar’s Melanie Griffith) to star in their movie. At first, Honey is terrified, but soon enough, she becomes a convert and joins in the guerilla filmmaking endeavor…and also joins in every gunfight that seems to come with every scene that is shot.
With Cecil B. Demented, John Waters (who both wrote and directed the film) seems to be simultaneously paying tribute to and making fun of the key demographic for his movies. The characters are film snobs, each with a tattoo that bears the name of a different cult movie director such as David Lynch or William Castle whose work defines their life (Cecil himself sports some Otto Preminger ink). The Sprocket Holes make generalizations about casual movies fans throughout the whole movie, looking down upon those who “talk once the main feature has started” or “buy tickets after the posted start time.” At one point, one of them holds a movie executive at gunpoint and asks him “Didn’t you just greenlight another movie based on a video game?” Cecil B. DeMented is a thinly veiled critique of the movie business as a whole, taking shots at both overzealous film fans and the disposability of the industry.
It’s also a thinly veiled retelling of the Patty Hearst story. For the uninitiated, Patricia Hearst (yes, THAT Hearst, the media company heiress) was kidnapped in 1974 by a left-wing terrorist organization called the Symbionese Liberation Army. After being held for a while, Hearst joined in her captives’ crimes, eventually being convicted of bank robbery. She claims to have been coerced through violence into joining the SLA, but the whole scene just reeked of Stockholm Syndrome. Hearst’s story closely mirrors that of Honey Whitlock in Cecil B. DeMented. For those who may think it’s a coincidence, Patricia Hearst actually shows up in the movie as the mother of one of The Sprocket Holes (her fourth appearance in a John Waters movie). Nothing is ever a coincidence when John Waters gets self-referential.
The cast of Cecil B. DeMented is stacked with young talent. Besides Melanie Griffith as Honey and Stephen Dorff as Cecil, The Sprocket Holes also include Alicia Witt (Urban Legend), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Frank), Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water), and Jack Noseworthy (Event Horizon). John Waters favorite Ricki Lake (Where the Day Takes You) makes an appearance as Honey’s assistant as well. In keeping with the meta theme of the movie, Kevin Nealon and Roseanne Barr show up as themselves, and Waters even pops in a cameo as a reporter. Cecil B. DeMented is a party, and everyone who’s anyone shows up.
Cecil B. DeMented was shot by cinematographer Robert M. Stevens (The Burbs, Fear). The movie has a run-and-gun look, much like the movie-within-the-movie that is being produced By Cecil and his Sprocket Holes. The photography is chaotic, spastic, and discordant. It’s a dark movie, but it’s also fairly colorful, a style that is fairly in line with Waters’ other movies. It’s both schlocky and artistic. Sort of like the kind of movie that Cecil himself would make.
The soundtrack for Cecil B. DeMented is the stuff of which independent alternative record store wet dreams are made. The music is all a tasty mixture of techno hip hop and grindcore punk rock, with songs included from various artists from Moby to The Locust. John Waters himself earns a few songwriting credits, two on songs performed by DJ Class, and one on the closest thing to a theme song that the movie has, a smooth jam ditty called “Demented Forever” whose refrain hook becomes a rallying cry for The Sprocket Holes as they go about their guerilla filmmaking rampage. The trippy soundtrack is as eclectic as the movie.
Cecil B. DeMented is more of a black comedy than a horror movie, but that’s pretty much what’s to be expected from John Waters. He’s made a career out of subverting the system, and with Cecil B. DeMented, he does it right to the system’s face.