4.5 out of 5 stars

The theatrical and Criterion Blu-ray re-release of Multiple Maniacs (1970), John Waters’ merry but dark descent into post-1960s LSD, Manson inspired comedown, and religious expurgation, is a salutary reminder of Waters’ anarchic origins in Dreamland — the ‘company’ founded in his bedroom. The film was partly shot on the lawn outside his Baltimore house for the breathtaking sum, borrowed from his parents, of $5000. Probably the first to truly encapsulate his sensibilities, it was the apogee of the many trajectories that Waters took during his childhood and teenage years, of the grotesque aesthetic and violent sensibility that informed his development as underground cinema’s agent provocateur.

As a child he was obsessed with car accidents, murders, The Howdy Doody Show, and The Wizard of Oz (1939). The film’s Wicked Witch of the West, the Wicked Stepmother, and Captain Hook in Disney’s Cinderella (1950) and Peter Pan (1953), respectively, inspired his own cosplay fantasies. He built and charged admission to ‘horror houses’ in his parent’s garage and became such a good puppeteer that he was hired regularly by neighbours. Inspired by showmen like producer William Castle, he attempted to spice up his Punch and Judy shows with new gimmicks, including fake blood. When the neighbours condemned him for his sick shows, his conservative parents realised he “was not likely to turn out to be the all-American boy.”

He fused this subversiveness with a love of rock ‘n roll and appreciated the delinquency it inspired in his teenage female classmates. He admired their dogged refusal to do their homework, only marking time so they could dump school and become what he referred to as “skags”. He moved on from private grade and public schools before joining a Catholic high school. His encounter with the nuns at Catholic Sunday School not only fuelled his antagonism towards religion but also shaped his taste in films. Every Sunday they’d tell him which films to avoid because they were sinful, and he would “make a point, from then on, to see every condemned film I could.”

“Somehow I got my hand on the Village Voice and started reading Jonas Mekas’s column and that opened up the world of underground movies that I knew nothing about,” he told Sight and Sound in 2015. From Mekas he discovered the underground cinema of Warhol, Paul Morrissey, George Kuchar, Jack Smith, and Kenneth Anger, and he would regularly bus it to New York to catch their films. Throw in the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, the honest debauchery of writers Jean Genet and John Rechy, and the surrealism of Bunuel’s cinema, and you begin to understand how Waters’ unrestrained brand of film making emerged.

He was also an Ingmar Bergman fan and took a new friend, Glenn Milstead, to Baltimore’s rep cinema to catch the director’s films. Tripping out on acid while watching Bergman, Glenn was more interested in films featuring rich people or starring Liz Taylor. Baltimore friend Carol Wernig introduced Milstead to Waters in 1963 and along the way Glenn was renamed Divine and the legendary actor, singer, and drag artist was ‘born’. Waters recalled, “I used to see Divine waiting for the bus when my father took me to school. He tried to dress preppy-ish and tried to fit in, but you could see that would be completely impossible for him. I always joked that he was the girl next door, but he actually lived about six houses away.”

Waters regularly absconded from classes with high school friend and ace shoplifter Mona Montgomery, and cultivated a group of friends and neighbours, who’d eventually become known as his repertory company the Dreamlanders, when he set out to make his first 8mm films in the early 1960s with a Brownie camera his grandmother had given him for his 17th birthday. His best friend Mary Vivian Pearce was joined in this gang of delinquents by Mona and Divine, who in turn introduced Waters to David Lochary, Pat Moran and “my first real star” Maelcom Soul.

multiple maniacs

Kicked out of NYU (they told him he needed “extensive psychiatric treatment” after a drugs bust), Waters found an apartment and worked at the Doubleday bookshop in Baltimore. His first film, a 15-minute black and white short called Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, briefly appeared in 1964 and was made on film stolen by Mona while working at a photography store. Shot on the roof of his parents’ house and screened only once at a local coffee bar, it depicts the wedding between a white woman and a black man where, endearingly, he woos her by carrying her around in a trash can and requests a member of the KKK to officiate at the ceremony.

In Provincetown, Waters met Mink Stole, another of his long standing repertory company, and she debuted with Divine in Waters’ second movie, Roman Candles (1966) a triple projected bizarre mix of sex, drugs, and religious imagery again made at his parents’ house. Divine returned as Jackie Kennedy in a re-staging of the Kennedy assassination filmed in front of his house for his first 16mm film Eat Your Makeup (1968). It was a strange film where kidnapped models were forced to eat their makeup and model themselves to death. While filming 1969’s Mondo Trasho, one of Waters’ actors, playing a nude hitchhiker in the film, was subsequently arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit indecent exposure. Thereafter, Waters and his actors were always rather nervous making films on location without any permissions.

The lifestyles and philosophies of his freewheeling band of hippie-yippie-punk artists, hairdressers, shoplifters, drag artists, college dropouts, and Baltimore outliers were increasingly reflected on screen and fully crystalised in Multiple Maniacs, his first sound synced film, that ushered in the ‘trash trilogy’ of Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974) and Desperate Living (1977). A truly surreal film, it tells the story of Lady Divine (a bravura performance by Divine) and her travelling show ‘The Cavalcade of Perversions’. This freak show of fetishes and obscenities is merely a front for Lady Divine and her followers to rob the patrons. However, she takes this to a demented extreme and begins a spiral into anarchy after gunning down several of the complacent, hapless victims.

Her boyfriend Mr. David (David Lochary) flees into the arms of peroxide blonde Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce) and they plot to murder Lady Divine just as she, in turn, becomes aware of his infidelities through the auspices of local bar tender Edith (Edith Massey making her Waters debut after being discovered working in the bar used in the film). This bizarre love triangle prompts Lady Divine to hit the streets in search of the traitorous pair only then to be attacked and raped by a pair of glue sniffers. Comforted by a vision of the Infant of Prague and ushered into a local church, she encounters “religious whore” Mink (Mink Stole) and enjoys the pleasures of a ‘rosary job’ in the church pews.

In an argument Bonnie accidentally kills Lady Divine’s daughter Cookie (Cookie Mueller, also in her debut after meeting Waters at the Mondo Trasho premiere), and when Mink and Lady Divine arrive at Cookie’s house further mayhem ensues. Divine stabs Bonnie and then eviscerates Mr. David. Driven completely mad, she consumes his entrails, murders Mink and, in her crazed state, is attacked and raped by a giant lobster. Yes, it really is a giant lobster called Lobstora. An enraged mink-coated monster, she goes on the rampage in Baltimore until the National Guard gun her down on the street.

Multiple Maniacs is a surreal nightmare that plays with the fractured narratives found in the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, which had started to influence American experimental drama in Off-Broadway theatre in the 1960s. Its suggestion that day-to-day reality should be treated as extremely suspect merges with the film’s use of provocation and protest, picking up on the alienation effects of Brecht and the negative consequences of political subjugation found in Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’. This informs Waters reaction to the failure of the post-JFK 1960s dream that culminates in the traumatising effects of the Manson murders. Lobstora, the absurd, surreal lobster creature inspired by a Provincetown postcard, is perhaps the ultimate symbol of this fractured world.

‘The Cavalcade of Perversions’, featuring armpit sniffers, a man eating his own puke, bicycle seat lickers, addicts going cold turkey and “two actual queers kissing each other on the lips” in a tent parked in front of his parents’ house, is where Waters makes disruptive use of Bakhtin’s sense of the carnivalesque. Multiple Maniacs sets out to “violate the standards of good taste, allying itself with filth, the profane and an overall sense of disreputability” and the carnivalesque is designed to shatter and disrupt conventional boundaries.

Waters takes this further and uses his humour and sense of taste to not only undermine the conventional, conformist world of the suburbs but also mock those delinquents, thieves, queers, hippies and peaceniks who rail against it. He’s an equal opportunities activist and Multiple Maniacs comes from, as he said, “a different time. There was a kind of cultural war going on. It was the Yippie years of politics, with all these actions against the government… and all this Yippie radicalism was done with theatrics, which certainly influenced me regarding style as terrorism.”

Style as terrorism allows Waters to destabilise the conformity of the era and also poke some fun at the countercultural audiences who eventually saw themselves reflected up on the screen. In Multiple Maniacs it’s accompanied by a ragged shooting and editorial aesthetic that shows Waters is still learning the ropes as a filmmaker. The out-of-focus and off kilter photography is amateurish but its crude energy adds to the viewing experience and Waters’ own ambition to make “a bad Cassavetes movie” using his guerilla-style filming schedule.

There are some wonderful sequences in the film: the Cadillac ride after Lady Divine and her crew flee ‘The Cavalcade of Perversions’ has a French New Wave feel to it and the denouement where the monstrous Lady Divine smashes up a car and goes on the rampage feels like something George Romero would be proud of. His use of the Baltimore locations underscores an aesthetic that proudly celebrates the ugly as beautiful.

The film’s shock value is still intact. The key sequence is, of course, the ‘rosary job’ that Lady Divine enjoys in a local church. Waters’ favourite Catholic saint, the Infant of Prague, delivers Divine into this salvation. As Mink pleasures Divine by “inserting her rosary into one of my most private parts” Waters intercuts to a sexually charged, masochistic religious vision of the Stations of the Cross where the entire cast reenact Christ’s journey to the crucifixion. Waters piles on the sacrilege with a brief shot of an addict shooting up at the altar as Lady Divine and Mink exit the church. “I think I finally worked Catholicism out of my system with the ‘rosary job’,” he later stated (or rather understated) yet it remains an abrasive sequence that fulfils his purpose of making you feel disgraceful laughing at what he puts on screen.

Multiple Maniacs remains a truly disruptive experience. It rides the crest of the Manson murders era and reacts to them as the film hurtles to a close. Originally, Waters was playing off the murder of Sharon Tate by her, at the time, unknown assailants, and ‘framed’ Divine and Mr. David as the culprits in Multiple Maniacs. When the headlines revealed Manson and his cult ‘family’ were the suspects, Waters altered his script as they were filming the mass murder at the end of the film: “at the end David Lochary finds this newspaper headline. That’s because Manson had been caught the same day and we had to work this in. Nobody could upstage Charlie Manson.”

Multiple Maniacs ‘family’ of crazed radicals reflects Manson’s own disturbed gang. Their collective rage indicated a huge shift in the counter culture where the dark, horrifying underbelly of the ‘60s dream violently overwhelmed the promised peacenik revolution. This is the mania that Lady Divine is engulfed by, a sense of hatred for anyone and anything that can only be resolved with violence and destruction. Divine, astonishingly good throughout the film, takes to the streets in a mink coat and a slip, carrying a sledgehammer and accompanied by Holst’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’. The combination suggests a bizarre mash up of an unhinged Liz Taylor on the rampage in The Quatermass Experiment. Waters leaves us with the political sucker punch of Divine gunned down outside the Midget Food Store as Kate Smith sings ‘God Bless America’ on the soundtrack.

The film has scrubbed up very nicely in high-definition for this Criterion Blu-ray release and I recommend listening to John Waters commentary as it’s chock full of anecdotes. There’s a brief video essay by Gary Needham that touches on many themes I’ve mentioned and there are entertaining interviews with cast and crew including Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio (who designed and played Lobstora), Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and George Figgs.

As usual I’m indebted to various sources:

  • Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste, John Waters (Running Press, 2005).
  • Filthy, Robrt L. Pela (Alyson Books, 2002).
  • John Waters Interviews, edited by James Egan (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).
  • Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, edited by Fabio Cleto (Edinburgh University Press, 1999).
  • Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film, Richard Dyer (Routledge, 1990).
  • Not Simply Divine!, Bernard Jay (Virgin Books, 1993).
  • ‘100 Years: John Waters Meets Divine’ in Baltimore Magazine, February 2007.
  • ‘The Interview: John Waters’ in Sight and Sound, September 2015.
  • ‘Fabulous Filth: John Waters on the re-release of His Second Feature Nearly 50 Years Later’ in The Village Voice, July 2016

Cast & Crew

writer & director: John Waters.
starring: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey & George Figgs.