Joshua Reviews John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs [Theatrical Review]

Photo by Lawrence Irvine

The name John Waters can conjure up many an image. Be it of the director himself (that mustache is as much a calling card as any of his feature films) or of his controversial films, few directors have built a cult around themselves like Waters. Best friend to the rejects, scumbags, losers and perverts, Waters and his films have become not only points of discussion for government officials lamenting about the nation’s dissolving morals but rallying points for those who live on the outside of popular culture.

And yet even he has one of those pesky “rarely seen” films that has seemingly become a forgotten curio for only the biggest of fans. That is, until Janus Films got hold of it. Entitled Multiple Maniacs, Waters marked his second feature by making a film that even had judicial figures like Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan proclaiming it to be “horrendous. Sickening. Revolting. Most distasteful.”

Multiple Maniacs, being long hard to find, is without a doubt one of the year’s biggest discoveries, and one of Janus Films’ most esoteric releases. The film opens as David Lochary’s Mr. David, a grotesque looking carnival barker invites late 60’s / early 70’s squares into a tent where they can partake in the viewing of everything from “real queers kissing” to a vomit eater. Ostensibly an opening act introducing us to a traveling roadshow known as Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion, the sequence culminates when we meet the titular Lady Divine, a bombastic drag queen and Waters’ most iconic leading lady. The viewer discovers that this is all a ruse to get Divine to rob the men and women taking in the show, with the robbery we get to see being the catalyst for Divine’s gradual descent into madness. With Mr. David ready to leave with a Jean Harlow blonde (Mary Vivian Pearce) and the pair fully prepared to kill Divine if they have to, Maniacs takes a stark turn in a second act that sees Divine encounter a “religious whore” named Mink Stole (Mink Stole) in what can best be described as the greatest Stations of the Cross sequence to ever be cross cut with a sex scene in film history.

Waters’ second feature, the director takes a true step forward here, making his earliest masterpiece. Clearly created under strong budgetary constraints, the film’s Lo-fi aesthetic may lead many to view it as a ramshackle carnival of grotesques, but for those who train their eye on the interweaving neo-realism and the Looney Tunes-sequel absurdism will see a film entirely its own. Influenced heavily by, and even name-dropping, The Manson Family, this film is decidedly of its time and yet has a surreal energy that remains timeless. The black and white photography is gorgeous thanks to a new restoration from Janus, and while the performances are the definition of high camp, there is a real energy and unflinching glee behind each sequence.

In many ways the film feels bisected. The first act is as mentioned above. Gleefully shoving the viewer’s face into this perverse family of carnival acts, this is maybe Waters’ clearest mission statement. With Mr. David barking, the film and the group it puts on screen is basking in the self-righteous responses of the squares viewing. Themselves devolving into judge mental beasts, the opening act here is arguably a great short film thesis statement for Waters and his entire oeuvre. And then there’s the “rosary job.”

After meeting Divine we watch as she enters a church only to become enrapture by a woman a few pews over. What proceeds is a blasphemous interweaving of a sex scene with a rebelling of the stations of the cross story, that plays to the viewer like an acid trip during a Beat poet-led mass. It’s a burst of energy that sustains a good chunk of the film and leaves the viewer as stunned as they are enthralled. The black and white photography comes to life here, taking a film that felt off kilter and truly turning it into something that feels exciting and in many ways dangerous. Concluding in a series of violent acts culminating in Divine being raped by a lobster, a scene that is still striking and audacious, the film is truly unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

And this is a Divine showcase as well. From her introduction to the final frame of the film, we watch as the already unhinged Lady Divine goes truly off the proverbial deep end, and few things are quite as engrossing. A drag queen by trade, Divine’s performative instincts are assured and feel spot on for this film in particular. Her betrayal at the hands of Mr. David is a plot that’s thin and doesn’t really hold any weight, but watching as he and Pearce eat up each inch of the scenery around them is really quite something special. It’s a film that’s more an aesthetic experiment, an aesthetic in shattering taboos at the start of a new decade, and in today’s culture where political correctness is seemingly on trial, this feels as controversial today as it ever did almost 50 years ago.

Where does this leave the Criterion Collection release that’s pending? Again, this is going to stand out as one of the most jarring and polarizing works Criterion has restored and released, but that doesn’t mean they’ll skimp on the supplements. Waters will very likely be front and center here, as will Divine, who graces the new and striking poster that will likely become the artwork for the film’s home video release. Fellow early works from Waters would be welcome, as would a history lesson in the controversy that followed its initial release. All in all, this is a Criterion Collection release that will very likely be one of the company’s most interesting to date.