Back in the day, you could only get your hands on a copy of The Loved One, a cult comedy from 1965, if you lived in close proximity to Scarecrow Video, had a spare $200 deposit idling in your bank account, and were willing to put up with crappy pan-n-scan VHS. But it was all worth it, if only to assuage your curiosity about a movie adapted by Terry Southern (a screenwriter for Dr. Strangelove and Barbarella) from a novel by Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited) and featuring Paul Williams, a mynah bird named Gandhi, and dead people. With its DVD release, the quest has gotten a lot less arduous—and the rewards are now letterboxed.
In 1965, the movie's tagline promised "something to offend everyone." Now we've all seen boys hump apple pies and eat dog poo, and a little '60s-style sexual frivolity looks rather harmless. But satire never goes out of style. What sets this movie apart from the used-to-be-shocking is the way it targets the whole of American consumer culture—starting with the ostentatious lengths we'll go to keep consuming after we're dust.
"Loved one," you see, is the euphemism for "dead guy" at Whispering Glades, an upscale (i.e., white) funeral establishment run by the creepy Rev. Glenworthy (one of two brothers played by Jonathan Winters). British loafer Dennis (American Robert Morse) gets caught up in the action when he goes to arrange a funeral for his uncle Sir Francis Hinsley (renowned Shakespearean actor John Gielgud) and is bewitched by a delicious-yet-dotty mortician, Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjanette Comer). But effeminate embalmer Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger) wants Aimee too! Jonathan Winters's other half, the reverend's brother Henry, works in the pet-funeral business, where he aspires to be as successful as his older bro. He enlists the help of Paul "I looked like a kid 'til you put me next to a real kid; then I looked like a kid with a hangover" Williams (playing 13 at age 23)—but all boy genius Paul wants to do is fire his rockets!
Some of the material is badly dated. Scenes with Tab Hunter, Milton Berle, Liberace, and Roddy McDowall don't make a lot of sense contextually—I had to look up the performers' names to figure out why they got so much screen time. (In my defense, Milton wasn't in a dress, Liberace's suit wasn't glowing, and Roddy wasn't playing an ape.) But the satire is still spot-on, and there is no better portrait of gluttony than Joyboy's morbidly obese mother eating an entire roast pig while working herself into an orgasmic frenzy over a new TV commercial featuring an enormous crab. It's crass, obvious, and brilliant.
The Loved One suffers from a lack of focus as the film winds toward the two-hour mark. And it's kind of a downer when the protagonist reveals, about halfway through the film, that he's just not a very nice person. But if you're in the mood for something wacky and funereal, The Loved One will bury you.