Multiple Maniacs (1970) was John Waters‘ second feature-length movie (his first was 1969’s Mondo Trasho). Shot in grainy black and white, it lives up to its “Cavalcade Of Perversions” tagline. Even for those familiar with Waters’ early work (and everyone should at least sample one of them), Multiple Maniacs may be considered an extreme challenge. Comparatively, Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1974), Desperate Living (1977) and especially Polyester (1981) might be seen as Busby Berkeley-styled celebrations of white trash.
Shot on a two thousand dollar budget (Pink Flamingos came in at $5,000 and Polyester, $200,000), Multiple Maniacs opens with the camera panning down credits typed out on white paper.
David Lochary, as a carny broker, introduces us to Lady Divine‘s “Cavalcade Of Perversions.” As the locals ready themselves in a canvas tent, Lochary, in best tent revival tone, assures us: “This is the show you want: the sleaziest show on earth. Not actors, not imposters, but real, actual filth. These assorted sluts, fags, dykes, and pimps know no bounds. They have committed acts against God and nature that would make any decent person recoil in disgust.”
These are not mere words, and before we can scream “Tod Browning,” we are privy to a woman licking a bicycle seat, a hippie eating a bra, two men licking the hairy armpits of a topless girl, a Human Ashtray, and two-cent choreography of a naked human pyramid that makes us thankful Adam invented the fig leaf.
Mere warm-up acts: “See two actual bearded queers French kissing! See a heroin addict in Fruit of the Looms, writhing among the leaves… Now I give you Lady Divine.”
After Divine robs the audience and killing one of its members (with a pop gun), Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, and gang cruise and dance to Elvis (without permission to use the music, which is one of the reasons Multiple Maniacs has never been made available on DVD and only appeared briefly on VHS). All that 1950s devil music inspires even more hedonism, and soon Lochary and Pearce are doing the nasty, despite the fact that David is Divine’s lover. Enter Edith Massey to spill the beans to Divine in a phone call.
Hell hath no fury like an oversized drag queen scorned, but before Divine can get her hands on the cheating beau, she is accosted by rival queens. Fortunately, she is consoled by her guardian angel, the Infant of Prague, who takes Lady Divine by the hand and gets her to the church on time.
With blasphemy rivaling L’ Age D’ or or Viridiana, Divine gets a “rosary job” from Mink Stole on the sacred pews of St. Cecilia, as the narrative literally parallels St. Francis’ “Way Of The Cross.” Perhaps even more blasphemous than Stole inserting prayer beads into anal orifices is future egg-lady Massey as the virgin Mary, meeting Jesus on the way to Calvary. Like Bunuel before him, Waters actually knows the orthodox dogma he satirizes, which makes the film effective guerrilla heterodoxy. Multiple Maniacs is Waters’ weightiest, most literal, penetrating, and spiritual film (yes, I said that). Divine (she is divine for a reason) delivers a voice-over narrative: a conjoined, meditative, idiosyncratic homily between actor and director, advocating for the societal outcast forever opposed by the smug, suburbanite Pharisees.
Made at the height of the Manson murders, Waters catapults Divine and Stole into the mayhem that had paralyzed American culture in a frenzy of fear. Caught in a perverse, religious fervor, our heroines are ordained as Waters’ SS Perpetua and Felicity, martyrs of theMultiple Maniacs. Unlike his country, Waters was anything but appalled. Rather, his brand of faith remained lucid and unwavering.
You can rest assure that neither the kitsch martyrdom of Dick Burton or Vic Mature included being raped and stigmatized by a lobster on a passion play couch. Perhaps that is the reason Moses forbade shellfish, which actually makes sense in a Waters’ universe. If only the hopelessly self-righteous Cecil B. would have been demented enough to know, he might have spared us those 1950s Hollywood Bible epic pornos. However, given 20/20 camp-value hindsight, perhaps it is better that constipated hypocrite wasn’t in on a Waters joke. Multiple Maniacs may just be seen as a healthy response to a sanctimonious Ten Commandments (1956).