Up until 2016, John Waters’ second feature film (and first ‘talkie’) Multiple Maniacs was one of the director’s most notorious and yet little seen films.
Made on a budget of $5,000 loaned by his father, John Waters took on nearly every technical aspect of production himself. He borrowed the 16mm camera from a local TV news crew, he cast the film entirely using his own friends (the opening credits, written on an unfurling length of shelving paper, is an almost complete directory of the Baltimore provocateurs who will later be known as the ‘Dreamlanders’), and shot in his own backyard. Literally – you can see Waters’ parents’ house in many of the shots.
Multiple Maniacs was never going to be a mainstream hit, containing as it does a cavalcade of perversion, sacrilege and murder. Divine plays ‘Lady Divine’ the ringleader of a travelling band of fetish performers, who put on extreme displays of bad taste and then rob the unwilling, conservative patrons at gunpoint. Lady Divine, however, is becoming bored of the whole effort of ‘putting on a show’ and would rather just get straight to the robbing and murdering. Her partner, Mr David, realises his days are numbered and plots a counter-strike against the increasingly ferocious Divine. Certainly compared to Waters’ first film, Mondo Trasho, this has more of a – and I can’t believe I’m using this term – conventional narrative, but oh my lord the things you’ll see if you “step right up” to this “sleaziest show on Earth.”
It starts innocently enough: bicycle-seat licking, hairy-armpit sniffing, puke eating (we’re assured it’s creamed corn) before it ramps up to sadomasochism, a jovially soundtracked alleyway rape, actual heroin use, and then of course there’s Multiple Maniacs’ dazzling centrepiece – Divine narrates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (solemnly visualised by the Dreamland players) while having rosary beads inserted up her bumhole during a lesbian encounter in a church. A “rosary job” if you will. (Incidentally, Waters has kept his promise to the church’s pastor never to reveal the true filming location of this scene).
This isn’t even Multiple Maniacs’ most outlandish moment. The film ends with Divine’s metaphorical transformation into a rampaging, city-destroying monster, fuelled by her much less metaphorical rape by a 12 foot-long lobster. It’s quite the most extraordinary thing ever committed to film. Divine screams and holds her head in the throws of melodramatic terror while this impressively realistic puppet-lobster thrusts away on top of her for a solid couple of minutes. Where did the lobster come from? How did it enter her apartment? I’ll just call it a Deus Ex Lobstora. This scene also leads to my favourite ever image from a John Waters film: a deranged, foaming-at-the-mouth Divine limps her way through the snow, wearing a blood-splattered swimsuit and fur coat while dragging a sledgehammer.
As you’d expect, the acting runs from awkwardly stilted (a product of amateur actors having to remember pages and pages of dialogue because they could only film in long single takes) to the magnificently broad (Divine, hypnotically brazen as ever). The effects are also laughably cheap – check out the tiny cap-guns that you never see fire, but will kill a person stone-dead after the meekest little sound effect. But what makes Multiple Maniacs so damn good, even watching it today, is John Waters’ commitment to his own artistic principles. No fucks are given, no compromises are made. It’s a pure and daring work, but it’s also hilarious funny thanks to the obscene, yet earnestly delivered dialogue that Waters will become the future master of.“Nobody’s been near my private parts. Well except for an old lady I met on the bus” and “I love you so fucking much, I could shit” being stand-out examples.
Although everything I’ve described so far is offset by absurdity or granted the gift of being ‘of its time’, the film still has moments that shock. The flippant manner in which Divine talks about killing a cop in an early scene; her sociopathic zeal when she murders the people closest to her; the salacious manner in which the Sharon Tate murder is used as a plot point (the Tate murders had only occurred months before the film was shot) – these are the moments that cause true discomfort. For all the shit eating and tea-bagging of Waters’ later career, murder is the taboo that makes Multiple Maniacs a true work of counter-culture.
After the film’s completion, Multiple Maniacs would play locally in Baltimore, mainly to Waters’ contemporaries, before appearing occasionally on the midnight movie circuit in LA, San Francisco and New York. Although Multiple Maniacs garnered attention for Waters and the Dreamlanders, it would be superseded in popularity and notoriety by Pink Flamingos, Waters’ most famous trash-terpiece. Multiple Maniacs spent the intervening decades ignominiously residing in John Waters’ closet (from 1970) and then his attic (from 1990).
However, cut to the 21st century and Multiple Maniacs has been rescued by the arbiters of cinematic quality, Janus Film and the Criterion Collection, and given the same luxurious restoration treatment reserved for Ozu’s Tokyo Story or Truffaut’s 400 Blows. The irony isn’t lost on John Waters, who in the audio commentary to Multiple Maniacs’ Criterion edition says the clean-up has made it look like a “bad John Cassavetes film” but claims it’s the perfect book-end to the film’s existence. It began playing to art-house crowds who were happy to see foreign classics alongside the extreme cinema of outsider artists, and now here it is again – housed among the world’s most important works of cinema. It’s a well-deserved, and well overdue fate.
Multiple Maniacs is available to buy from March 20th.