Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Director Report Card: Paul Bartel (1985)

6. Lust in the Dust

“Lust in the Dust” was not really Paul Bartel’s project. It was originally conceived by star Tab Hunter. After working on John Water’s “Polyester,” he managed to pull drag-queen extraordinaire Divine into the project. Hunter had gone so far to try and get fellow Waters cast-member Edith Massey in the movie and even asked Waters to direct. Those last two attempts didn’t come to fruition but the fact remains: Bartel was brought to the film late in its development. Understandably, not that many of his touches are all too visible.

The movie is a bawdy parody of westerns. The film liberally references “Duel in the Sun,” to the point that IMDb lists it as a remake. The finale directly pokes fun at the famous conclusion to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” while also borrowing the gritty, dusty, dirty look of spaghetti westerns.

The story revolves around the New Mexico dive town of Chile Verde and a trio of characters wandering around it: A strong-silent-type gunfighter drifter (Tab Hunter), a big fat dance hall girl (Divine), and the owner of the local bar/brothel. The trio is brought together out of a mutual quest for the town’s legendary hidden treasure. A bunch of other characters are thrown into the mix, including the town’s very knowledgeable preacher (Caesar Romero), a Mexican bandito, an elderly prostitute, and a rival group of wandering gunfighters. Wackiness ensues, such as an important plot points revolving around maps of Ireland tattooed on people’s asses.

The biggest issue with “Lust in the Dust” is the same issue to be had with most of Paul Bartel’s post-“Eating Raoul” output: There are many long, quiet spaces between laughs. Divine’s typical schtick is pushed too far. His character acts as if she’s a beautiful woman that inspires violent lust in men. (Even if she doesn’t.) The character is raped and seduced several times throughout the story. The movie seems to delight in showing us the fat cross-dresser's ass and fake tits. (Unless those are Divine’s real big floppy man-titties. Which is even worst.) There’s a lot of perversion rolling around the story, especially towards the end when Laraine is trying to manipulate the men around her with her sexuality. Considering the setting, director, and title, it’s no surprise that the movie has a preoccupation with gross sex. But there comes a time when it stops being funny and starts being just, well… Gross.

In the last act, once the treasure is located, the movie quickly devolves into a series of confusing double-crosses. It’s a potentially clever idea and a suitable send-up of traditional western treachery. However, it drags on for way too long. The movie has a generally turgid, listless pace, and you definitely tire of it before it’s over.

The cast seems similarly enervated. Hunter’s take on the stoic gunfighter part revolves mostly around squinting. Divine’s camp overload wares out long before the conclusion of the movie. And Marguerita’s motivation seems to shift around constantly. Caesar Romero and Henry Silva have a little bit of fun, but their parts come off as mostly afterthoughts.

“Lust in the Dust’ isn’t a total slog. For a fact, it almost starts out promisingly. A short opening narration, provided by Bartel himself, about the hot heat in the desert is amusing. The movie is almost a musical, and features three song-and-dance numbers, including the opening credits. These scenes are fairly energetic and the music’s pretty catchy. If nothing else, the movie totally nails the dusty, dirty look of your traditional western.

“Lust in the Dust” apparently has a fan-base among camp-enjoying gay men. I found it pretty tiresome. There might have been enough meat on these bones for a half-hour short, but a feature, even a fairly brief 88-minute one? Nah. [Grade: C]

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