10th Oct2019

‘Polyester’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey, David Samson, Mary Garlington, Ken King | Written and Directed by John Waters


After his prolific 1970s, enfant terrible John Waters directed only two films in the 1980s, at each end of the decade. They were also his two most mainstream and – relatively speaking – palatable works. One was 1988’s Hairspray, and the other was Polyester, made in 1981.

Waters’ muse Divine plays Francine Fishpaw, a middle-aged housewife who’s married to a wealthy porn cinema owner, Elmer (David Samson). They have two teenage kids: the uncontrollable and self-destructive Lu-lu (Mary Garlington), and Dexter (Ken King), whose frustrated foot fetish leads him to a stint in prison after a rampage as the “Baltimore Foot Stomper”.

Like most Waters flicks, there’s no real plot, just a melting pot of outrageous characters doing hideous things to each other. Francine is the glue that holds the tenable parts of the family together. And for all the debauchery she witnesses and the abuse she suffers, there’s something delightfully hopeful about her character; the way that her strength and decency is ultimately empowering.

Waters is satirising the so-called “women’s pictures” of his youth – the films of Douglas Sirk and his peers, which hopped over the picket fences of quaint American suburbia and gave voice to the bored, frustrated housewives sitting there in silence.

Waters is no sniper – this is pure shotgun satire. He’s making fun of virtually everyone and everything: supposed small town serenity; the church; puritans; news media; police; youth, and the tabloid perception of youth. Polyester yanks jokes from any taboo it touches, whether it’s alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, suicide or mental illness. It’s a disgraceful rollercoaster which only slows for a brief stint in the third act, notably when Francine’s life isn’t going to hell in a handcart. This is as unsubtle a comedy as you’re ever likely to see, and Divine sets the hyperbolic tone. His drag may be toned down to fit the pastel shades of Francine’s curtains, but the performance itself is as rabid as anything from his Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs days.

Most bizarre of all is the inclusion of Odorama™. As explained in a prologue, presented by one Dr Arnold Quackenshaw (Rick Breitenfeld), every so often a character (usually Francine) will smell something lovely or horrible, and a number will flash up on the screen. This is our moment to scratch and sniff the next olfactory option on the Odorama™ card. And yes – the card is included in the Criterion release.

Polyester is a very particular confection of comedy, taking its broader-than-broad strokes from the ghastly sex comedies of the 1970s, except adding a sweet layer of irony. It feels okay to laugh because, while the film depicts mean people, the outlook of its author is anything but mean-spirited. It’s a ridiculous and wilfully perverse spectacle, naturally, and it will only appeal to sliver of filmgoers, but if you’re looking for an entry point to John Waters’ wild world, here it is.


  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director John Waters, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary featuring Waters from the 1993 Criterion laserdisc release of the film
  • New conversation between Waters and critic Michael Musto
  • New program featuring interviews with Waters collaborators Tab Hunter, Dennis Dermody, Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Mary Garlington, and Greer Yeaton
  • Interviews from 1993 with cast and crew members Waters, Divine, Moran, Peranio, Edith Massey, and Van Smith, featuring footage from the making of the film
  • Archival interviews
  • Deleted scenes and alternate takes
  • Trailer
  • Scratch-and-sniff Odorama card
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Elena Gorfinkel

Polyester is out on Criterion Blu-ray from October 14th 2019. Pre-order your copy here.


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