A different role for John Waters -- The comedian steers clear of shock value as a much tamer character in ''Cry-Baby''

The Baron of Bad Taste. The Prince of Puke. The King of Kitsch. John Waters has been called all those names — and worse. But times have changed for America’s finest purveyor of contemporary trash. He has gone legit — mainstream, even. With the release this week of Cry-Baby, produced by Ron ”Opie” Howard’s Imagine Films, Waters unleashes his rollicking vision of camp and excess on the unsuspecting PG-movie audience.

The lively, music-filled story of ’50s teen rebellion comes from the man who first gained notoriety in 1972 with Pink Flamingos, in which his favorite star, Divine — the late, great 300-pound drag queen — eats a freshly dropped dog turd. The man who rabidly defied conventional movie wisdom by corralling a bunch of miscreants, transvestites, druggies, and shoplifters and forging the sickest and sauciest low-budget comedies of the last two decades.

”You change,” the 44-year-old Waters admits,rumbling down Sunset Boulevard in a Dodge Dart. ”Your sense of humor gets a little more refined, a little more well tuned. And I don’t have that incredible rage anymore. It’s healthy to have rage when you’re 20, but silly to have it at 40. People who have incredible rage at 40 are bitter, and bitter people are the dullest people.”

The relative tameness of Cry-Baby, and Waters’ two previous films, Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988), may be disappointing to a fraction of the audience who identified with his early shock-inducing work. But this rock & roll musical starring 21 Jump Street‘s Johnny Depp vividly represents the next stage in the evolution of one of American cinema’s most hilarious and incisive humorists.

Like Waters’ transformation from shockmeister to respected (though not completely respectable) comedian, kicking the habit has been gradual — much like the way he weaned himself off cigarettes, moving from Kool Milds to Kool Lights to cold turkey. ”I’m really proud of those early movies, but they were products of their time and you couldn’t — I wouldn’t — make them today,” he says. ”After Desperate Living (1977), the films were no longer made to be midnight movies.

”The difference between a midnight movie and a movie that can play everywhere is the threatening aspect. And God knows I’ve threatened,” he laughs devilishly. ”So I don’t feel the need to keep doing threatening over and over and over and over. There are some people that hate the fact that I made a Hollywood movie, but for me, that’s getting the last laugh. It’s the ultimate subversive thing to do.”

Set in 1954 in Baltimore (Waters’ home-town and the site of all his films), Cry-Baby is a spoof of ”wild kid” ’50s movies like Jailhouse Rock and Mamie Van Doren’s Girls Town. It lovingly depicts the joys of teen rebellion and the tragic pitfalls of early conformity. The movie also celebrates an adolescence Waters craved but never enjoyed. ”I wanted to be a juvenile delinquent in 1954 but I was only 8, so it was kind of hard,” he explains. ”Because what could you do? Trip your babysitter?”

Cry-Baby solidifies Waters’ reputation as an undisputed master of casting (see related story). His obsession with early rock & roll and whacked-out vintage hairdos and fashion still shines through loud and clear. And from the first scene, where high schoolers line up to receive vaccinations from ludicrously outsize hypodermics, Cry-Baby is outrageously exaggerated throughout in the best Waters tradition.