Western Film WTF: Lust in the Dust (1985)

There are a lot of weird old films that deserve to be revisited. Especially when dealing with films in despised genres, or that address themselves to despised subject matter. So I went into watching "Lust in the Dust" with an open mind.

It is transparently an attempt to do a John Waters film without John Waters. It stars Tab Hunter and Divine, who had starred opposite each other in Waters' "Polyester" just four years earlier. It was also going to feature Edith Massey, an actress previously only associated with Waters, but she died before filming and was replaced with Nedra Volz. Waters says he was approached about directing the film, but turned it down, as he only directs his own scripts.

I think he was probably being kind. The film was coproduced by Hunter and was another starring role for Divine, and Waters may not have wanted to rain on their parade. Because the script for "Lust in the Dust" is not good. It was penned by Philip John Taylor, a veteran freelance television writer who went back to writing for television. I don't know how his episodes of "Eight is Enough" or "The Incredible Hulk" were, but he was not well-matched to this material, much of which had been originated by Hunter.

The movie was directed by Paul Bartel, a Corman veteran with several genuine oddball classics to his credit, including "Death Race 2000," "Rock and Roll High School," and "Eating Raoul," which he had just directed two years earlier. Bartel was capable of both arch camp and aggressively black comedy, but his direction on this film is workmanlike. (I find a vague reference to him and Hunter not getting along on the set, but nothing more detailed.)

I will say that there are people who like this film, and beside the fact that taste is subjective, there are things to like in it. Lanie Kazan is in it, and while she was often cast as an overbearing Jewish mother, here she plays a lusty saloon owner. She tears into the role with real gusto, playing the character as a sort of desert-baked Mae West, and she's terrific. Divine is unexpectedly sweet in her role; the performer was obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor and you can see it in this performance, which couples the hothouse overacting of Taylor's Tennessee Williams films with her wounded flintiness from her later roles.

The script, however, gives them a fairly generic Western plot (Roger Ebert complained about it in his original review, saying the film asks us to care about a story that we don't care about). The jokes tend to be rather tacky cocktail napkin sex jokes or the sorts of genre potshots that "Airplane" mined well; these are mined poorly. It's too bad, as, when we meet Divine, she is riding on the back of a mule, and she falls off, bursting her canteen. "My gin!" she cries out, and it's perfect.

But the next scene, in which Divine is confronted by a collection of ethnically stereotyped desperadoes, is a protracted rape joke, the sort of vaguely creepy sex jokes that used to show up in Playboy knock-offs. I will reproduce one here for the sake of specificity, although it kills me to do so. "Wait," Divine cries out. "I'm a virgin!"

"That changes things," the lead desperado says. "In that case, I will go first."

I may be paraphrasing slightly. I refuse to watch the film again to double-check the dialogue.

I wanted to like this film, because the idea of a knockoff John Waters film satirizing Spaghetti Westerns is delightfully odd. But the oddness is almost entirely in the conception; the execution is mundane, uninspired, and a little exhausting.


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