STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: John Waters | CAST: Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pierce, Cookie Mueller
RELEASE DATE: 3/21/17 | PRICE: DVD $22.99, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: audio commentary by John Waters, interviews with cast members, video essay by historian Gary Needham
SPECS: NR | 96 min. | Comedy | 1.66:1 fullscreen | mono
John Waters occupies a special place in the American film world. The only underground filmmaker to successfully work “above ground” (on a family-friendly Broadway musical, even!), he has proven a very talented writer of social satire in print and serves as an eloquent and very funny mouthpiece for kitsch lovers around the world.
But there was a time when he was a truly transgressive filmmaker, and that John Waters is on display here. His early shorts and first feature (Mondo Trasho) are currently MIA (largely due to music rights, although Mondo was out on VHS from Cinema Group in ’87), but Multiple Maniacs (1970) serves as a perfect encapsulation of what Waters was doing before Pink Flamingos became a hit on the midnight-movie circuit, and he went from being a regional troublemaker to getting labelled “the Pope of Trash” by no less than William S. Burroughs.
The film is intended to gross out its audience, but not in the modern Farrelly brothers/YouTube prankster sense of that term. The opening sequence of the film shows us a carnival show called “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion.” The acts in this show include a woman kissing a bicycle seat, men licking a woman’s armpits, a “puke-eater” and what the carny barker deems “two actual queers, kissing each other like lovers on the lips!”
This was clearly Waters tweaking the sensibilities of the “normal” folks who might’ve wondered into the film, while he also was amusing his target audience, whom he describes in the audio commentary as “crazy bikers, gay people who didn’t fit in with other gay people, psychos and people on drugs.”
Multiple Maniacs isn’t a social satire, though. It’s a nasty, over-the-top comedy that seems structured around three unforgettable set-pieces: the aforementioned carnival, a “rosary job” sequence shot in a real church and a stunningly bizarre fantasy anti-climax in which Lady Divine (played of course by the late, great Divine) is raped by a giant lobster.
In his pre-Hairspray features, Waters crafted his own universe that was based on white-trash iconography and classic and camp cinema, from Hollywood’s hoariest melodramas to the bad-taste Bronx-shot films of the Kuchar brothers.
The episodic plot involves Lady Divine’s criminal activities, which wind up turning her from a small-time carny con woman to a “monster” storming the streets of Baltimore. While Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble benefit from garish color schemes, Multiple Maniacs succeeds largely because of its threadbare production values (amplified by Waters’ memorably nasty dialogue) and its stark b&w location photography.
Three all-new supplements were created for this release. The first is a video essay by U.K. film scholar Gary Needham. The piece finds Needham adopting a quite somewhat solemn tone to discuss the film’s themes — a rather odd choice, given the film’s over-the-top approach to comedy. Needham emphasizes Waters’ indebtedness to both arthouse cinema and exploitation. To do this, he uses pull quote phrases like “[Multiple Maniacs] rips at the heart of decency and good taste.”
A montage of clips from new interviews with the surviving stars of the film (all except Waters vet Mary Vivian Pierce) is closer to the mark, with all involved stressing that the filmmaker had a very clear idea of what he was doing. Pat Moran, a Waters production manager who in recent years was casting director of The Wire and Veep, notes that there was no ad-libbing in Waters’ ultra-low-budget films, and that the cast and crew maintained a very dedicated attitude throughout the shoots, no matter how weird what they were filming was.
Supporting actor George Figgs maintains that the cast were playing versions of themselves in the film, while the always exuberant and charming Mink Stole declares her mixed feelings about rewatching Multiple Maniacs, since four of the lead performers have been gone for such a long time (David Lochary, Cookie Mueller, Edie Massey, and Divine had all died by 1989).
Mink supplies some of the best moments, discussing the “rosary job” scene in which her character sexually violates Divine with a crucifix (all simulated, she emphasizes) — one of the cinema’s most brilliantly blasphemous scenes, shot in a real church. (The man who gave Waters permission begged him not to reveal the church’s name after seeing the film; both Mink and Waters admit in this package that, in the 48 years since the film’s premiere, they have never once mentioned it in public.)
Waters friend and later production designer Vincent Peranio supplies similarly amusing information about the film’s other insane set piece — a long sequence in which Lady Divine is raped by a giant lobster creature named “Lobstora.” The oversized crustacean took Peranio and his brother a week to construct (for a total of $37.50). While he’s now proud of what they accomplished, he notes that he hated the creature when he first saw the film, as it basically stops functioning as the scene goes on.
The best inclusion in this release is, naturally enough, the director commentary by Waters. He is characteristically informal and funny in his discussion of the film, leading one to wish that he had some kind of regular Web or television presence. (A Waters podcast would be a must-listen, but so far… nothing.)
After he starts out praising Janus and the Criterion Collection to the hilt, he then openly acknowledges that his filmmaking career is over, noting that the 2016 restoration and theatrical release of Multiple Maniacs by Janus, and its subsequent Criterion incarnation, is appropriate, since he began his career in earnest with it (in terms of a wider amount of screenings in different cities) and is now ending it with the same film.
Waters has much praise for the restoration, as well as composer George S. Clinton’s soundalike music, written to replace the items that were prohibitively expensive to license. While the new music is indeed similar, there is something odd and unsettling about seeing an ultra-low-budget feature scrubbed clean of its imperfections and boasting a crystal-clear soundtrack. “Guerrilla” filmmaking requires some imperfections, but there are none to be found here.
One of Waters’ strongest suits as a writer has been his characters’ memorable insults and monologues. Multiple Maniacs was a turning point for him, as it was his first film with a steady stream of dialogue. (There are some lines in Mondo Trasho, but the film’s soundtrack is mostly comprised of music.) He discuses in the commentary the way that his cast dealt with this new wrinkle – Edith Massey is in fact seen forgetting her lines onscreen at one point.
Although some of his friends at the time were hippies, Waters maintains that he was a “yippie” at heart, fond of provocation and action. His goal, plainly stated, was “to break taboos” with his films.
He is also quite honest about the fact that, in spite of his deep love of exploitation movies, his films never went over in grindhouse settings. The reason was that exploitation viewers were not into irony or satire (gross or otherwise) – they preferred a more serious, less subversive treatment of sex and horror.
Perhaps the nicest note for dyed-in-the-wool camp fans is that Waters puts in a pitch to Criterion for the restoration of one of his favorite movies. There aren’t many people who would take time in their audio commentary to recommend that a deluxe edition of the Burton-Taylor-Tennessee Williams flop Boom! be released, but John Waters is most certainly not your garden-variety cinephile.
Buy or Rent Multiple Maniacs