I’ve seen a few John Waters classics like Desperate Living & Pink Flamingos projected on the big screen before, usually with a midnight crowd, but I’ve only had two experiences watching his work for the very first time in a proper movie theater: 2004’s A Dirty Shame & the 2016 restoration of his 1970 forgotten gem Multiple Maniacs. Surely, there’s a bias factor that should be considered when reviewing a work from your favorite director/artist/human being after experiencing it for the first time large & loud with a receptive film fest crowd. My personal devotion to Waters aside, though, Multiple Maniacs is still an excellent slice of go-for-broke shlock cinema. A smaller, arguably nastier provocation than Pink Flamingos, it answers a question I’m not sure I ever would’ve dreamed to ask: what if John Waters made a horror film? It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional “actors,” but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.
I guess I should clarify up front exactly what I mean when I call Multiple Maniacs a horror film. Unlike the subversive horror comedy leanings of Serial Mom, this is horror in the way titles like Spider Baby & Mudhoney qualify. It’s a grimy uncovering of an outside-of-society crew of murderous weirdos, the kind of picture that eventually lead to more conventional slasher genre space carved out by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but didn’t quite have its own established tradition at the time of its release. Waters displays no shame in his getta-load-of-this-freakshow dynamic, opening his film with a literal freakshow: Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions. A carnival barker advertises “acts against God & Nature” to entice the audience & passersby inside the tent, all while feigning mock disgust. There’s gleeful puke-eaters, bicycle seat humpers, and actual real-life homosexuals (the horror!); but the real star of the show is Divine herself, Waters’s most infamous collaborator and, arguably, the greatest drag queen of all time. Divine’s freakshow act is simply her own fabulous being. She holds her audience at gunpoint, bullies all of her employees, and lounges nude in the mirror to give full reverence to her own beauty & divinity. Her turbulent romance with David Lochary’s carnival barker, with its cop-killing violent streak & dual indulgences in adultery, drives the isolated freakshow into the general public, where Multiple Maniacs turns into a legitimate monster movie. Not only does Divine herself transform into an inhuman monster with a formidable body count, the film also makes room for an appearance from a giant monster movie-style lobster just for the sake of it.
It’s tempting to believe that this early glimpse at John Waters’s regular crew of degenerate collaborators, The Dreamlanders, would mostly benefit the already-converted. Surely it’s exciting to see these weirdos in their artistic infancy. Edith Massey seems particularly fresh & unpolished in her natural habitat as a barkeep. It’s weird to know that David Lochary’s look as Raymond Marble in Pink Flamingos was something he exuded all the time. Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, and Divine are all playing prototypes of the characters who would later be cartoonishly exaggerated in other Dreamlander collaborations, with Divine’s monstrous transformation in particular being explained in-film with the line “Every minute she’s alive she’s getting worse & worse!” Waters even draws conscious attention to this “cavalcade of perversions” by naming the characters after their real life counterparts: David, Mink, Cookie, Edith, etc. There’s no doubt that longtime fans of the director’s work would get a kick out of this overlooked gem’s babyfaced cast that newcomers might not tend to care about in any particular way. However, the film does have a recognizable appeal as a genre film artifact even outside of that context and it’s a dynamic largely due to its nature as deliberately campy horror.
Seeing Waters’s “cavalcade of perversions” at work so early in his career is valuable both to fans & newcomers alike because it calls attention to the fact that The Dreamlanders were straight up punks in the era of hippies & suburban sprawl. The surf rock soundtrack, beat-up Cadillacs, crossdressing, and leopard print get-ups of Multiple Maniacs construct a rock & roll nightmare incongruous with its then-current counterculture of hippie niceness. This is a playfully mean movie, one crawling with cartoonish rape humor, gleeful violence, and the single most blasphemous use of a prayer rosary imaginable. It’s no wonder that in Divine’s final moments of mania she’s treated like a Godzilla-esque monster complete with fleeing crowds & an armed military response. The world wasn’t quite ready for her particular brand of perversion and her very existence reads on the screen as a criminal act, one amplified by the film’s microfilm-reminiscent opening credits scroll. That shock value even holds power today, somehow, as I’ve never attended a John Waters screening that didn’t inspire at least one walk-out. Even in a film festival environment there were three hurried walk-outs during Multiple Maniacs. I don’t know if that speaks more to Waters’s reputation as The Hairspray Guy, the aggressive specificity of his sense of humor, or his unique ability to push buttons, but it’s honestly kind of incredible that any film from 1970, before the grindhouse heights of drive-in grotesquery, can disgust people into fleeing in horror in 2016, especially one this unabashedly silly.
Waters is obviously an inexperienced filmmaker in Multiple Maniacs. He catches his players wildly out of focus, he wears his influences proudly on his sleeve (including a poster for Russ Meyer’s Vixen!), he relies heavily on details like nudity & (absurdly unrealistic) rape scenarios for easy shock value, etc. However, the film holds up surprisingly well as a proto-punk provocation, maybe even one with wider commercial appeal than the more consistently celebrated Pink Flamingos, due to its genre thrills as an eccentric horror comedy of sorts. I’ll likely have very few more chances to catch one of his films for the very first time in a public audience environment & this one did not disappoint in the slightest. In an ideal world all of Waters’s back catalog would get this careful restoration treatment.