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Desperate Living (1977)

A neurotic society woman murders her husband with the help of her maid and, on the lam, escape to Mortville, a homeless community ruled over by a fascist queen.




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Cast overview, first billed only:
Bosley Jr. (as Brook Blake)
Karen Gerwig ...
Jay Allan ...
Al Strapelli ...
Bosley Gravel
Turkey Joe ...
Willie Brooks ...
James Yeaton ...
Dead Bum
Ed Peranio ...


A rich housewife murders her husband with the help of her overweight maid, and the two go on the run, ending up in Mortville, a town providing refuge for criminals. They shack up with a lesbian ex-wrestler and her murderess lover, before running into the tyrannical Queen Carlotta, ruler of Mortville... Written by Michael Brooke <michael@everyman.demon.co.uk>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

queen | murder | maid | shack | lesbian | See All (137) »


It isn't very pretty.....


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Parents Guide:





Release Date:

27 May 1977 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Mortville  »

Filming Locations:


Box Office


$65,000 (estimated)

Company Credits

Production Co:

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


The flashback of the babysitter throwing a party is based on the sort of prank John Waters would pull when he babysat in high school. See more »


When Mole first meets Peggy and Grizelda she tells them that there are no toilets in Mortville, but at the lesbian bar there are toilets, where Peggy is harassed by the 'bathroom pervert'. See more »


Peggy Gravel: Have I gone to Hell? Is that it? Have I gone straight to Hell?
See more »

Crazy Credits

Desperate Living's opening credits appear beside an overhead shot of a formal table setting, in which a maid serves a cooked rat as the main course, which is salted and eaten. See more »


Referenced in In Bad Taste (2000) See more »

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User Reviews

Water's punk satire on fascism
3 October 2006 | by (Adelaide, South Australia) – See all my reviews

It was 1977, the year the Sex Pistols stormed the British pop charts with "Anarchy in the U.K.", and John Waters marked the year with the release of his most joyously angry opus, "Desperate Living".

Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) is a suburban housewife who returns home from the mental hospital to the care of her husband Bosley (George Stover) and her massive black maid Grizelda (Jean Hill). She is caught up in one long paranoid screaming fit, accusing a neighbourhood kid of trying to murder her with a baseball and fearing that her pre- pubescent children are having sex. When Bosley catches Grizelda stealing and tries to administer "fit medicine" to Peggy, the pair attack him and Grizelda kills him by sitting on his face.

On the run from the law, Peggy and Grizelda have an encounter with a perverted policeman (Turkey Joe) with a panty fetish. In return for their panties, and wet soul kisses, he shows them the way to Morteville, a town so hideous that criminals can live there in a state of "mortification" rather than go to prison.

The pair rent a room from a lesbian couple, butch Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and her busty man-loving girlfriend Muffy St. Jacques (ex-stripper Liz Renay). But they are soon arrested by the leather goons of Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey) who orders them to have a trash make- over.

Carlotta's daughter Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivien Pierce) is in love with Herbert (Mike Figgs), the garbage collector at the local nudist colony.

Mole makes the ultimate sacrifice for her lover, Peggy joins forces with Queen Carlotta, and Princess Coo-Coo becomes a victim of her mother's insanity, as Morteville moves inexorably toward revolution.

This John Waters classic is a masterpiece of deranged comedy which repays multiple viewings. Beneath the camp humour and cheap gross-out gags is a surprisingly perceptive satire on the infantile, neurotic nature of fascism. Compare this film with Barbet Schroeder's classic documentary "Idi Amin Dada" (1974), and you will see that the psychology of real fascist dictators is not that different from that of Queen Carlotta. (Idi Amin's portrait is one of several that hangs on the wall in Carlotta's castle.)

Some may not like this film as much as John Waters' other early works because of the absence of Divine, but really this is a benefit in a way as it allows Mink Stole to shine in her one starring role and gives great space also to the incomparable Jean Hill. But everyone is good in this film, with Susan Lowe having her one big role in a Waters' movie. The scene in which she reveals her special gift to Muffy actually has a profound undercurrent of tragedy you just don't expect in a Waters' film.

Look out also for one of Waters' most obvious tributes to Herschell Gordon Lewis in the wrestling scene, an appearance by Waters' current casting director Pat Moran as the bathroom pervert (she also played Patty Hitler in deleted scenes from "Pink Flamingos") and the gorgeous Marina Melin (who had been appearing in Waters' films since "Eat Your Makeup" (1968)) baring all as the chief nudist.

Waters really wears his "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Wizard of Oz" influences on his sleeve with this one.

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