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 director has successfully diversified, spreading his joyous message of queerness via books and spoken word tours instead of films.
But in a happy turn of events for Waters’ legions of fanatics, they get to rediscover one of his freshly-exhumed obscure classics on DVD. 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, and until now it’s never officially been available on DVD or Blu-ray. Criterion has handled Multiple Maniacs like it’s a prestigious art movie, giving it a loving deluxe digital remaster treatment.
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 proprietress of traveling freak show “The Cavalcade of Perversions” . 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. Oh and – spoiler alert – a giant lobster is involved.
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 vicious dialogue is predictably quotable, while the soundtrack encompasses ominous rumbling surf instrumentals and twangy rockabilly.
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!