#6 – Multiple Maniacs (1970)
Director: John Waters
Writer: John Waters
Cast: Divine, Mink Stole, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Cookie Mueller
Running time: 96 minutes
“Even the garbage is too good a place for it.” –
Mary Avara, Maryland Board of Censors
“(Print) Destroyed” – Canadian Censor report
What’s the story: A couple who front a bizarre traveling circus become murderous when their relationship collapses.
What’s the verdict: “A CELLULOID ATROCITY!” pants the original, hand drawn promotional material for John Waters’ sophomore feature. And it ain’t lying.
47 years may have tempered Multiple Maniacs’ shock value, but trace echoes remain of just how bizarre and vile it must have appeared when first unleashed in 1970.
A product of Waters’ “Dreamland Studios”, this is a film made as homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ grindhouse gore fest Two Thousand Maniacs, yet invokes the work of Luis Bunuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Andy Warhol. A bad taste bacchanalia, it’s heady stuff and the closest you’ll get to a psychotic sixties acid trip.
Scripted on the fly and shot over snatched weekends by multiple maniacs in front of and behind the camera, technically this is no-frills stuff. The picture frequently loses focus, players look down the barrel of the camera, violence and stunt work is sub-pantomime.
But, there is talent here, evident in the profane dialogue, calculated blasphemy, and strikingly surreal imagery foreshadowing the movies of David Lynch.
Waters knows to open with a bang, taking Baltimore suburbanites (and the audience) into the Cavalcade of Perversion. A travelling circus show MC’d by Mr. David (Lochary) and dominated by star attraction Lady Divine (Divine), it features such sights as bicycle seat licking, armpit licking, puke eating and (likely most shocking back then) two men Frenching.
A loose plot follows the Cavalcade’s implosion as Mr. David plots murder with illicit lover Bonnie (Pearce) and Lady Divine is raped by a man in a dress before a reawakening as a lesbian. A second rape from a giant lobster sets her on a Baltimore-threatening rampage.
Multiple Maniacs’ centerpiece is that sexual reawakening, as Lady Divine is buggered with a rosary in a church by Mink (Stole), a woman with a “lewdly religious glare”. The buggery is intercut with a well-executed depiction of the Stations of the Cross (Christ’s walk to Mount Calvary on the day of crucifixion).
Presumably, it is the “rosary job” keeping Multiple Maniacs’ at certificate 18 (although now uncut, a 1990 video release booted the buggery). A sequence of shock and exaltation, it’s the kind of thing Ken Russell got crucified for a year later with The Devils and packs the same punch.
A rage against the machine movie and spiky offshoot of late 60s queer cinema, for Waters there are no sacred cows in a film that is political without being fashionably leftist.
A policeman is murdered, it is implied Lady Divine’s Cavalcade was responsible for the Sharon Tate killings (before the Manson Family’s arrest resulted in rewrites), and one character belongs to long-forgotten, rubbish left-wing militant group The Weathermen.
All this is often great kicks, but like many John Waters movies Multiple Maniacs is best watched with like-minded friends. Shooting with a synch-sound news camera meant the director was unable to cut during dialogue scenes without losing synch, so what should have been an 80-minute movie sometimes drags at 96 minutes.
But, committed (in every way) performances from Divine, Stole, Lochary, Pearce, and Cookie Mueller as Lady Divine’s wayward daughter bolster slow stretches. And there is fun in seeing roughly the same 10 people play different characters to save money, while regular Baltimore folk are roped in for the big finish.
Waters next film would be Pink Flamingos, in colour and even worse taste. As for Multiple Maniacs, you may not echo Mr. David’s sentiments when he says, “I love you so fucking much, I could shit,” but the bad taste does sometimes delight the palate.
Disc and extras: This time capsule of perversion receives the full Criterion treatment in a 4K restoration job overseen by John Waters. Purists may howl that the director has authorised a full clean-up, removing the rough splicing and print damage, and reframing the 1:66 ratio to 1:85, but this is as close to Waters’ intentions as the $5,000 film will ever get.
The restoration remains sympathetic to the 16mm pocket money aesthetic, while bringing out background detail in the locations. Want to see what John Waters’ apartment looked like, or his parent’s front lawn, or pre-gentrification Baltimore and its bemused looking residents? Now you can.
Waters’ audio commentary is as engaging, informative and disarmingly charming as you’d expect from the urbane Pope of Trash. The director has impressive recall of the shoot, which occurred in autumn and winter of 1969 into 1970, providing anecdotes on filming and identifying bit players and locations.
He also reveals his favourite review for the film, from the Canadian censors who sent him a letter saying the print he submitted had been “Destroyed”.
Even Waters seems taken aback by some of the weirdness, wondering out loud, “God knows what I was thinking when I wrote this…”
Gary Needham’s video essay The Stations of Filth is a 10-minute appreciation and good intro to Waters’ early work.
Half hour of interviews with Mink Stole, production designer Vincent Peranio, and Mink Stole, plus supporting players Susan Lowe and George Figgs (who plays Jesus amongst characters) are spirited reminiscences of the shoot and that time when the “Dreamland Players” were young and carefree and just a little dangerous.
The re-issue trailer rounds off the package.
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