Multiple Maniacs might be the most profane movie of John Waters career (or, at least of the films that he has released to the public). It’s the work of an angry young rebel who seeks to upend the social order just for a laugh. For the longest time, this work was only seen in bad 16mm reels or a shoddy VHS copy made from one of those bad 16mm reels. Now, in the new Criterion release, Multiple Maniacs has been cleaned up and spit shined so you can see every undulating body part and hear every absurd piece of dialogue. Quite frankly, it probably looks better than it did when John Waters first projected it in church basements.
Divine is the Lady of the Calvalcade of Perversion, a traveling side show that shows off disgusting depravities, including men kissing (EW! SICK!), to the wholesome but curious. Then they steal their money. It’s practically a commentary on Hollywood and the modern entertainment machine – “Step right up and see this man eat his own vomit! But, you have to pay to see it!” Well, that’s normally how this gig works except Lady Divine decides to kill her patrons and go on the lam with her boyfriend and prostitute daughter. The is a body count.
Waters veers around in a wild revenge-based comedy whose plot is a mere excuse for its vicious set pieces. Entertainment, drugs, religion, and monstrosities are all parts of modern culture designed to make even the most level-headed person go insane, nevertheless the psychotic Lady Divine. Perhaps this is John Waters’ most overtly political film, ending with the National Guard and Kate Smith singing God Bless America. This was initially shown in 1970, after the counterculture started souring in America and everybody had already voted in Richard Nixon as a Law and Order President. But, that may be giving too much weight to a film that has a giant animatronic lobster named Lobstora.
Those looking to get into John Waters, this is not the place to start. Made when he was just 24, John Waters was still in full on rebellion mode. Multiple Maniacs is a transitional film between Waters’ early 16mm experiments and his breakthrough hit Pink Flamingos. It isn’t as youthfully pissed off as Eat Your Makeup, which includes a re-enactment of the assassination of JFK with Divine as Jackie O, or Mondo Trasho, which opens with chickens being beheaded. But, it isn’t as polished or coherent as Pink Flamingos. Everything great about John Waters is here – biting satire, dark humor, antagonistic characters, all served with a smile – but in a more condensed saturated state that requires a lot more unpacking. There are some scenes that haven’t aged as well as others (namely a pair of druggies who rape Divine in the middle of the movie), but that’s what you get with angry as fuck queer youth giving a middle finger to the world.
P.S. As with every John Waters DVD, this has a John Waters commentary, and these are always don’t miss extras. John Waters holding court is almost as great as his movies.