Cecil B. Demented: John Waters’ call for cinematic havoc

John Waters (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)
John Waters (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images) /

It’s been 20 years since Cecil B. Demented made its theatrical bow, but the lessons of John Waters’ underrated film remain relevant today.

Cecil B. Demented was one of the first John Waters movies I ever watched, so maybe that’s why, whenever I think of his filmography, it’s the first thing to pop into my head.

It’s a misfit movie about misfits making movies. Waters purists would probably consider it a marginal offering from the man who gave us such boundary-pushing films as Multiple Maniacs and Pink Flamingos. (It does exist within the parameters of an MPAA-approved “R” rating, after all.)

But as a gateway drug, Cecil B. Demented is a cuddly-yet-sharp effort that has become one of my go-to comfort movies. It nails the feeling of being an outsider so well, especially for those of us who struggle to bring our creative pursuits to life.

It also proves, when it comes to ultra-low budget filmmaking, that creators (not producers or studios) are their own best advocates, even if their visions skew toward the inept. Based on the evidence given, Cecil (Stephen Dorff) is more Ed Wood than Francis Ford Coppola, but is driven – and ultimately redeemed – by an indefatigable commitment to his art.

And maybe that’s another part of Waters’ thesis: Cecil is an ostentatious, outspoken guy whose filmmaking collective is not unlike a high-camp version of The Manson Family. With little exception, these “SprocketHoles” follow the director’s orders, putting themselves in increasingly dangerous situations in the name of their creator’s vision.

But consider me a convert, because I admire Cecil B. Demented‘s contradictions. It came out a year after Fight Club blew my easily-impressionable teenage mind, and it shares some of the same themes. In youth, what seems romantic in its sense of danger can be recognized for the absurd flight of fancy it is once you hit adulthood. But that’s not to say the core message can’t still resonate in big and profound ways.

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For instance, a bit of prophecy comes during the opening credits: over a thudding, ominous beat (courtesy of Moby), Waters gives us a montage of theater marquees boasting ridiculous line-ups that have come to represent our “new normal” two decades later. Cecil B. Demented also came out a year after The Phantom Menace resurrected Star Wars and reset expectations for the “summer blockbuster.” The marquee that lists Star Trek and Star Wars ad nauseam is indicative of a perpetually-hungering mainstream fandom, chomping at the bit for more of the same.

Manson-Family parallels aside, the SprocketHoles are ultimately a likable, ragtag bunch, acting as host to all manner of psychoses and messed-up childhoods. Making this group more intriguing is the presence of up-and-comers like Adrian Grenier, Michael Shannon and Maggie Gyllenhaal in go-for-broke supporting roles. It’s easy to jibe with the spirit of these characters, especially if you’ve ever walked out of the multiplex feeling burned over some intelligence-insulting movie that cost untold millions to make.

Part of Cecil’s vision is “real situations…with real people…and real danger.” I particularly like an early sequence where the SprocketHoles invade a screening of Patch Adams, to which abducted Hollywood starlet Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) scoffs, “[it] doesn’t need a director’s cut…the first one was long enough!” I found myself thinking of Ari Aster’s Midsommar getting re-released in a 3-hour version last year and felt an eerie sense of kinship.

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Or the fact that Waters distills his cynicism toward the Hollywood machine in the form of a fake sequel to an Oscar-beloved movie that earned Tom Hanks his second consecutive Best Actor trophy. In retaliation against Cecil’s actions, the Baltimore Film Commission announces it will be hosting production for Gump Again, starring Kevin Nealon.

But Waters also has some sneaky, nuanced homages up his sleeve. The climactic sequence takes place at the Bengies Drive-In, and imagines the last act of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets not as a tense, Second-Amendment-friendly hunt for a sniper, but a celebration of cinema in the form of patrons rallying behind Cecil and the SprocketHoles’ seizure of the projection room. Waters even cuts to a jaded couple on a date, ticking off the common complaints of the modern theater-going experience.

In the end, Honey Whitlock is assimilated into the guerrilla filmmaking collective, and while Griffith often seems genuinely frightened of her co-stars, I also love how willing she is to roast the rom-com persona that helped her rise to fame.

With Hollywood’s eagerness to franchise popular titles into oblivion, I wonder what a sequel to Cecil B. Demented would look like: maybe the surviving SprocketHoles (jaded by Blumhouse and Marvel, perhaps?) stage a jailbreak for Honey, who’s been further hardened by her prison experience. Part of me could imagine Dakota Johnson at the forefront of this new incarnation, joining forces with her real-life mother to bring cinematic havoc to a new generation of film-goer…and that niche group who still relate to Cecil’s (and Waters’) philosophy.


You can watch Cecil B. Demented on Amazon Prime, Tubi, Google Play, Apple TV, YouTube, Fandango, VUDU and Microsoft. 

Should there be a sequel to Cecil B. Demented? What is your favorite John Waters film? Let us know in the comments.