This essay on John Waters' Multiple Maniacs (1970) was written by Matt Connolly, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A new DCP restoration of Multiple Maniacs will screen Monday, October 17, at the Marquee Theater at Union South in our Marquee Monday series, co-presented with WUD Film.
By Matt Connolly
Those who have come to know John Waters through his later, irreverent-but-accessible films such as Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990), and Serial Mom (1994) are often dumbstruck when they explore the director’s 70s-era cinematic shockers. The sexual and scatological excesses of films like Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), and Desperate Living (1977) continue to jolt some forty-odd years later. Waters’s aficionados take a certain amount of pride in their love for these movies’ hair-raising scenes of gleeful cannibalism, feces gobbling, and chicken-inclusive copulation.
To those die-hard fans, I can only say: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Rarely screened for decades, Multiple Maniacs showcases some of Waters’s most startling scenes of taboo-shattering humor, not to mention the cock-eyed critique of societal norms and hypocrisy that would run throughout his oeuvre. Waters himself deemed Multiple Maniacs his personal favorite amongst his own films, writing in his memoir, Shock Value, “I like the meanness and harsh documentary look; and for the first time the actors could spew forth the endless pages of dialogue I had written, lip-synced at last.” (Indeed, Multiple Maniacs was the first of Waters’s films to have sync-sound—a somewhat astonishing fact, given how central his foul-mouthed dialogue would become to his cinematic world.) Finally back in theaters in a newly restored DCP, Waters’s acolytes and newbies alike can bask in the director’s self-proclaimed “celluloid atrocity.”
The film’s loose plot offers Waters both the opportunity to scandalize his audience and to mock our own desire for such appalling sights. Run by the wild-eyed Lady Divine (Divine) and her sleazy boyfriend Mr. David (David Lochary), the traveling freak show deemed the Cavalcade of Perversion lures in suburban gawkers with the promise of witnessing such “horrors” as puke eaters, bicycle-seat sniffers, and (in a winking nod to the still-restrictive sexual norms of the time) “two actual queers kissing.” Once inside the tent, the audience that sneers and leers at the show’s performers becomes the victims of Lady Divine herself, who proceeds to rob her patrons at gunpoint. Lady Divine grows increasingly unglued when it becomes clear that Mr. David has been cheating on her with the endlessly chatty Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce). Her desperation and rage leads Lady Divine into a series of increasingly jaw-dropping situations, including a “rosary job” given in a local church by prowling sex fiend Mink Stole. The confirmation of David’s infidelity soon pushes Lady Divine into pure psychosis. Without giving away any of the twisted surprises of the film’s final few scenes, I will only say that you’ll never look at a lobster quite the same way again.
As with all of Waters’s films, Multiple Maniacs was shot on location in and around his beloved hometown of Baltimore. Waters recalled the particularly tricky task of finding a church in which they could film the deeply sacrilegious sexual acts that Stole performs on Lady Divine as the latter prays for spiritual enlightenment. The solution came when Waters was introduced to a left-leaning local priest who agreed to allow the filmmaker to shoot in his house of worship. As a radical friend of Waters’s distracted the priest with political chatter, Waters got his scandalous footage, and even grabbed an image of a local actor shooting up on the altar for that extra touch of impiety. With typical impish understatement, Waters would later write “Multiple Maniacs really helped me to flush Catholicism out of my system.”
Ironically, Waters had relied upon local religious institutions as exhibition sites for his previous short films and his first feature, Mondo Trasho (1969). He had first screened his work at the Great Hall of Emmanuel Church, but switched to First Unitarian Church for the premiere of Multiple Maniacs after the reverends at Emmanuel had, in Waters’s words, “decided they had risked their necks enough for ‘art.’” These first showings offered glimpses of the midnight-movie bacchanalia that would soon become associated with Pink Flamingos. A consummate if highly self-conscious showman, Waters loved the outrageous gimmicks of such B-cinema masters as William Castle. He took up exploitation film’s mantle of anything-to-get-em-in-the-door overkill, but did so with an eye towards the trash culture he celebrated in Multiple Maniacs. As a result, lucky viewers at the midnight showings of Multiple Maniacs received such fabulous “door prizes” as a book on Sharon Tate and a pound of ground beef.
Even more so than his previous feature, Multiple Maniacs also made a splash outside of Charm City. Underground Cinema 12, a traveling series of experimental and independent movies, picked up the film and circulated it across the country. Perhaps more importantly to Waters’s burgeoning reputation within the countercultural and queer communities of the early 1970s, Multiple Maniacs played as part of the Nocturnal Dream Shows. A notable midnight-movie program run out of San Francisco’s Palace Theater, the Nocturnal Dream Shows both screened films and showcased the wild stage shows of the Cockettes, a San Francisco drag troupe whose performances blended campy Hollywood glamour with the drug-infused ethos of the Bay Area hippie scene. Waters would soon collaborate with the Cockettes on original live productions starring Divine, who received a rapturous airport greeting by the Cockettes upon first arriving in San Francisco. Such a glowing reception would, in Waters’s eyes, give Divine the confidence that he needed to fully embrace the “terrorist drag queen” persona perfected in Pink Flamingos. “It was the first time Divine became Divine in his other life,” Waters told critic Scott MacDonald, adding that Divine’s “whole life changed. He realized he wanted to do this for a living.”
Certainly, Multiple Maniacs proves fascinating in how it lays the groundwork for Waters’s later 1970s masterpieces. Not only does Divine fully come into focus as a character and persona, but Waters’s stalwart and Pink Flamingos stand-out Edith Massey first graces the screen here as a barmaid and confidante of Lady Divine. You don’t have to be a Waters’s devotee, however, to appreciate Multiple Maniacs’s defiantly grimy aesthetic, its pitiless upending of social mores and good taste, its fervent and witty celebration of the deviant and debased. Few lines capture that unique Waters’s mixture of aggression, affection, and bodily excretion better than Mr. David’s breathless ode to his beloved Bonnie: “I love you so fucking much I could shit.”