The Daily Stream: Cecil B. Demented Is John Waters' Riotous Ode To People Who Love Movies

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Cecil B. Demented"

Where you can stream it: Free with ads on Tubi

The Pitch: John Waters, the filthy mind behind such subversive films as "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble," sets his satirical skills on the subject he loves most: movies and the people who make them. "Cecil B. Demented" lovingly skewers cinephiles, independent filmmakers, and the studio system, all with Waters' signature punk rock flair. Stephen Dorff stars as the titular Cecil, an avant-garde independent filmmaker who has created a movie-making cult of followers obsessed with cult cinema. Cecil wants to make a movie using cinematic terrorism, filming sequences in real-time as he and his crew, called the Sprocket Holes, wreak havoc all over the Baltimore film scene. In order to get attention for his film, he has the crew kidnap actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), known for her roles in schmaltzy, trite romantic comedies, and Oscar-bait dramas. Honey starts getting to know the crew, who have all taken a vow of celibacy for celluloid, and realizes that she has more in common with them than she ever could have imagined. As Cecil's stunts get more outrageous, the bonds of the crew grow stronger, but will they be strong enough to finish their movie? 

Why it's essential viewing

It's impossible to overstate this movie's impact on me. It's in the number 1 spot on my top 15 favorite movies list because I discovered it during my teens and Waters' loving but vulgar and violent take on cinema lovers was like my "Breakfast Club." Waters is the self-designated "Pope of Trash," and his films focus on misfits who refuse to conform to societal norms, no matter the cost. While "Serial Mom" is his most accessible film, "Cecil B. Demented" is the one that marries his subversive ethos with truly entertaining filmmaking best. It's a perfect marriage of weird, funny, and smart, cemented by a great cast who are giving it their all. 

Early on, we're introduced to each of the Sprocket Holes as they introduce themselves by showing off their crew tattoos. As a part of the initiation, each crew member gets a tattoo of their favorite filmmaker's name. As they introduce themselves and their job in the movie, they show off their ink. It seems kind of insane when you think about it, but it's really just a heightened version of the same kinds of things cinema fans already do. Everything about "Cecil B. Demented" is heightened, though it never quite devolves into farce. The performances help keep the characters feeling human, especially when they behave ridiculously. 

So who are some of the Sprocket Holes? Alicia Witt plays Cherish, the lead actress, a former porn performer in an unconsummated love affair with Cecil. "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier is the lead actor, Lyle, who used to have lots of problems but now just has a drug problem. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Raven, the makeup artist who also happens to be a practicing Satanist (the goat-sacrificing kind). Even a young Michael Shannon shows up as Petie, the crew's driver, who happens to have an obsession with Mel Gibson's genitalia. Waters regulars Mink Stole, Patricia Hearst, and Ricki Lake all have small roles, and Kevin Nealon and Roseanne Barr show up as themselves. It's a pretty star-studded cast given the subject matter, and everyone devotes all of their energy to Waters' vision, just as the characters commit to Cecil's. 

No one is safe from Waters' scathing humor. Digs at mainstream blockbuster cinema are everywhere, starting with fake movie titles during the opening credits that are mostly legacy franchise sequels. The Sprocket Holes crash a screening of "Patch Adams 2," which they think is sentimental drivel, and one of the theater employees tells Cecil that he's "just like Tarantino!" Kevin Nealon even stars in a fake "Forrest Gump 2," because sequel fever has been around for a long, long time. (Seriously, it's wild how many of the jokes from 2000 are still relevant today, and some are even more relevant.) 

On the other hand, the hardcore movie fans are also shown to be a bit ridiculous. The Sprocketholes get into a battle with a parents' advisory group, and shout things like, "Hey, hey, MPAA, how many movies have you censored today?" and "Family is just a dirty word for censorship!" They hold low-budget films as holy and refuse to see beyond their own biases, in a way just as narrow-minded as the family-friendly corporate "shills" they hate. But even as Waters points out that the extremism of these characters is a problem, he makes us fall in love with them. Like all of his films, "Cecil B. Demented" has warm fuzzy feelings towards its gang of freaks, and they're treated with empathy by Waters even if the world doesn't show it to them. 

"Cecil B. Demented" is filthy, with sequences involving hamster porn and some insanely lewd dialogue, but for the squeamish, don't worry: it doesn't come close to the depravity of Waters' early work. There's some blood and violence too, as the crew's stunts turn into something more criminal, but nothing too graphic. There are few movies about movies that have the same deranged energy as "Cecil B. Demented." Anyone who loves movies and can take a joke at their expense should check it out. Join the cult, baby. Demented forever!