Thursday, 6 April 2017

Reflections on ... Multiple Maniacs (1970)

[I reviewed Criterion's new Blu-ray release of John Waters Multiple Maniacs for gay arts and culture website HISKIND in March 2017. Read it here.  Disappointingly, they edited the hell out of it, deleting all my efforts to put the film into context – so I’m posting it here in its uncut / uncensored original version!]

It’s looking increasingly unlikely cinema’s high potentate of trash John Waters will ever make another movie following 2004’s commercial flop A Dirty Shame. (In recent years, the 70-year old “peoples’ pervert” has successfully diversified, spreading his joyous message of filth via books and spoken word tours instead of films). 

But happily for Waters’ legions of fanatics ravenous for a lurid sensationalism fix, they get to rediscover one of his freshly-exhumed obscure classicks (sic). For decades, Multiple Maniacs (1970) - which Waters himself calls his “celluloid atrocity” - has been virtually impossible to see.  A grainy, scuzzy VHS was issued in the eighties, then it occasionally surfaced as a poor-quality pixelated bootleg (Waters’ legal team promptly deletes it every time it crops up on YouTube) - but until now it’s never officially been available on DVD or Blu-ray. And now Criterion has handled Multiple Maniacs like it’s a prestigious art movie, giving it a loving deluxe digital remaster treatment. Watching this crystalline deep velvety black-and-white revival of Multiple Maniacs is like experiencing a whole new film.

/ Divine as Lady Divine in Multiple Maniacs

Forty-seven years later, the restored, reviled and revolting Multiple Maniacs hasn’t lost its capacity to startle. It still feels insanely raw, nasty, punk and queer. And it’s essential to understanding Waters’ subsequent films (Multiple Maniacs suggests a preliminary sketch for his next film, 1972’s more famous Pink Flamingos). In her first starring role, Waters’ 300-pound hog princess drag queen leading lady and muse Divine portrays Lady Divine, the cruel and amoral proprietoress of traveling freak show “The Cavalcade of Perversions” of assorted sluts, fags, dykes and pimps. (The sensational revue incorporates vomit eaters, bicycle seat lickers, a junkie writhing in withdrawal and “two queers actually kissing on the lips like lovers”). When we first encounter Lady Divine, she’s lounging stark naked on a bed and barking orders at her minions – think Liz Taylor as Cleopatra. Upon learning her carnival barker boyfriend and criminal accomplice Mr David is leaving her for another woman, a homicidal Lady Divine embarks on a berserk rampage.  The film concludes with a cannibalistic blood orgy (Multiple Maniacs – made in ’69 – was Waters’ response to the Charles Manson Family murders in same way Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was for Russ Meyer). Oh and – spoiler alert – a giant lobster is involved.

/ David Lochary as Mr David in Multiple Maniacs /  

Sure, in technical terms neophyte Waters’ filmmaking is frankly amateurish (which makes Multiple Maniacs feel like a lunatic home movie) and the actors sometimes stumble over the verbose script. But there is much here to make a Waters devotee swoon in frenzied ecstasy. The cast features Waters’ familiar stable of regular actors at their most heartbreakingly youthful and fresh-faced, like David Lochary and Mink Stole (Raymond and Connie Marble, the villains of Pink Flamingos), Mary Vivian Pearce, Cookie Mueller as Divine’s hard-boiled lisping (frequently topless) juvenile delinquent daughter and – in her film debut - the beloved snaggle-toothed outsider actress and punk granny Edith Massey.  The vicious dialogue is predictably quotable (“I love you so fucking much that I could shit!” “And all at once she inserted her rosary into one of my most private parts …”) while the soundtrack encompasses ominous rumbling surf instrumentals and twangy rockabilly. Thematically, Multiple Maniacs sees Waters lashing out at his Catholic upbringing:  the “rosary job” Divine receives from perverted religious whore Mink Stole and the blasphemous re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross still feel taboo and sacrilegious. 

/ Edith Massey as The Virgin Mary in Multiple Maniacs

Best of all, Multiple Maniacs captures iconic freak diva Divine-in-embryo, still a fleshy young starlet or ingénue on the ascent.  Mincing around like Jayne Mansfield in a skin-tight leopard print pencil skirt and brunette wig, snarling her lines and sometimes actually foaming at the mouth in excitement, this represents early Divine at the height of her monstrous beauty.

The promotional tagline for Multiple Maniacs screams, “Better than amyl nitrate! Better than Carbona! Better than heroin!” What other film could live up to those claims? It’s like an intravenous jolt of bad taste. For long-term Waters aficionados, the Blu-ray release of Multiple Maniacs is the equivalent of Christmas day. For newcomers to Waters’ oeuvre, it offers an excellent introduction. Get corrupted!

MULTIPLE MANIACS - available to buy on Blu-ray from 20th March 2017 from the Criterion Collection 

Further reading: Read my epic 2010 interview with John Waters here

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