Review for Multiple Maniacs
‘Multiple Maniacs’ is not a film for the faint-hearted. Despite its home movie, art film, transgressive vibe it is actually John Waters second ‘feature’. Like Warhol’s self-made films of the late 1960’s, what it lacks in technical polish is more than compensated for through sheer force of personality.
It’s a film that really defies categorisation, with the exception of ‘a John Waters’ film’. It’s a film made to offend middle-class, suburban sensibilities, the world in which Waters and many of his cohorts were born.
When it was first released, it played almost exclusively hippy art-house joints, where its alternative and highly subversive content was most acceptable. Arguably this was almost the birth of purely transgressive cinema, shocking and tasteless in the extreme. It’s almost pointlessly ‘polished’ for this reverential, high definition release from Criterion which shows how far Waters and his troupe have come in terms of more mainstream cultural acceptance.
Its narrative clearly draws on the horrific Tate murders and the dysfunctional Manson family. It features Waters regular, Divine (drag queen and singer, Harris Glenn Milstead) who really sets the tone for the whole film somehow, from the second we see her, she becomes its centre-piece, literally stealing the show with her camp, barbed sarcasm and extreme behaviour.
The film starts with a troupe setting up what is tantamount to a freak show in an open field in a pleasant surburban landscape – actually the grounds to Waters’ mother’s house (I wonder if she knew or condoned what they were up to). “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions” is a show featuring puke eaters, live sex with armpit licking and even the delights of watching a heroin addict go cold turkey, before injecting himself back to normality.
The show’s caller, Mr. David (David Lochary, another Waters’ stalwart) brings in the unsuspecting punters who, after watching a part of the show, are then robbed blind, and in one case, murdered on the spot by Divine and her minions.
It’s a technical rag bag that looks as ad-libbed as it gets though this apparently was far from the case, with Waters carefully writing every line and making sure that no one deviated from his bizarre vision. Waters produced, directed, shot and cut the film himself; all on a shoe string budget that allowed for monochrome 16mm but little in the way of audio-post production, meaning very shaky live sound is used throughout. But despite this, the film manages to propel itself every onward in a grimly compelling way, darkly humorous and always subversive. The camera work is often wobbly too, or not quite in focus, and the special effects in the ‘lobster rape’ scene at the end (don’t ask!) is almost laughable in its execution, though that is the point of course. No wonder Waters himself describes it as a ‘celluloid atrocity’.
The troupe arrive back at Divine’s less-than-delightful daughter’s apartment (actually Waters own) and the debauchery continues there with plenty of drug-taking, sexual subversion and murder too – all delivered with the same faux-seriousness by the cast. You really have to see it to get any sense of what it’s like.
When Divine decides she’s found Jesus and visits a church, he and Mink Stole enact a sex scene that sees a rosary being forcibly stuffed up her backside. Nice – and not surprising that the church that had granted permission for the filming was a tad upset when they realised what had happened. According to one of the interviews on the disc, someone kept the Priest talking whilst this outrageous scene was shot. It’s typical of Waters to want to offend any and all institutions of power. The jury is out as to whether that scene or the giant lobster raping Divine is the most shocking. Even some (almost) fifty years on, the film has the power to raise eyebrows.
The truth is, that despite its many faults, it is still imbued with that Waters ‘thing’ that eventually found commercial success in the excellent ‘Hairspray’ among many others. So Waters became quite the auteur and Divine a disco singing sensation, before checking out far too early with a heart-attack.
Criterion have issued this as a restored 4K image but that really doesn’t mean anything as the original source material is so grungy to start with. So it’s as good as it will ever look, but don’t expect to be wowed.
There is an exclusive Waters commentary, which is fun and it’s clear he still has a juvenile pride about the work though does comment that, with its restoration, it now plays like a very bad Cassavetes movie. There are also some great contemporary interviews with surviving members of the cast, like Mink Stole, who shine a pretty interesting light on what it was like to be part of Water’s gang.
There is also a video essay on the film by film scholar Gary Needham, plus an essay by critic Linda Yablonksy.
It’s a great package of an absolutely fascinating low to no budget art-house film that may well be the most shocking film you watch this year, despite being nearly 50 years old. It’s also great to see early Divine, almost fully formed and clearly destined for even bigger things.