Director: John Waters
Stars: Divine, David Lochary
Rating: NR (was originally an X)
5 (out of 5) Globes
“Pink Flamingos” was the film that made John Waters a name, but he used to say his favorite was “Multiple Maniacs.” And no wonder: His 1970 cavalcade of perversion (to borrow a phrase from the movie) doesn’t feature Divine eating real dog poo, but the outsized star only did that because the film that came before had raised the bar into outer space. Amazingly, there’s still somewhere to go after a movie featuring mass murder, a backwoods recreation of Jesus’ crucifixion, Divine gorging on some poor guy’s innards and three separate rape scenes, one of them done with rosary beads, another performed by a seven-foot-long lobster.
Funded with a loan by Waters’ nice parents (which he later paid back), “Multiple Maniacs” is the kind of no-fi home movie made by your friends if all of your friends were nuts. The plot is skeletal but has the wrath and body count of Jacobean tragedy. Divine plays “Lady Divine,” the hotheaded leader of a gang of thieves. They like to court squares into a tent, promising them an assortment of depravities: a woman tonguing a bikeseat, armpit-licking, necking beardos, a junkie in the throes of withdrawal, a naked pyramid. Usually the patrons are then robbed, but Lady Divine has grown bored with such jazz. She decides to escalate to murder, prompting her exasperated lover (David Lochary) to plot her death with a bubbleheaded blonde (Mary Vivian Pearce).
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There are plenty of monocle-shattering sights to puff out the length, as well as a strangely hypnotic middle section devoted to some not so-old-time religion. This stretch finds Lady Divine reciting the Stations of the Cross over a makeshift tale of the Christ (including J.C. passing out Wonder Bread) — blasphemous images made blasphemouser when intercut with her getting rosary’s shoved up her butt by Mink Stole. Why not! And why not end the picture with Divine rampaging madly about Baltimore like Godzilla, finally taken out by the National Guard (played by members of Maryland’s own actual National Guard)?
Negligible budget and poor framing and crap in the film gate and shots that go in and out of focus and all, “Multiple Maniacs” is a helluva movie. Buried underneath its excesses is a take-no-prisoners assault on a society as divided as ours today. That Lady Divine and her fellow freedom-lovers are also psychopaths is what makes it truly subversive. Waters and clan belong to no group except their own — a tiny band of militants who only succeed if they make you sick. (“If someone vomits watching one of my films,” the peerlessly quotable Waters once said, “it’s like getting a standing ovation.) Their scorn extends to a buffoonish Weatherman making it with Lady Divine’s daughter, the latter spending most of the movie topless.
Not that “Maniacs” is consciously political, which makes it more subversive yet. It’s just doing its thing, and that thing has as little money as it does chops. For his first full-length talkie — previous outings, like 1969’s “Mondo Trasho,” substituted novelty songs for synch sound gabbing — allows scenes to run on into eternity. For the handful of randos who saw Waters’ films as they were being made, finally being able to hear as well as see Divine must have been like discovering your favorite silent star was also a mesmerizing orator. Of course, even he can prattle on too much and to no apparent end, and the same goes for Waters’ mostly-in-place assortment of weirdo regulars (Lochary, Stole, briefly Edith Massey).
Still, just as some plays require a small theater to make an impact, “Multiple Maniacs” would only work as unpolished and spotty and sometimes outright incompetent. That it’s been giving the Criterion treatment is funny, though it might lessen its impact; it’s best watched on an unfinished wall in a radon-tainted basement with an audience of pickpockets. Thing is, Waters is no slack with content. He stuffs his amateur hour battering ram silly with great stuff — sights that still bewilder as equally as they elate, hairpin plot turns that put a crick in the neck, and one of the great out-of-nowhere the-hell-was-that endings. Like the end of “Psycho,” this happening still surprises even if you’d already watched the clip of it on YouTube. If Waters had never scored the dough to make another movie, “Multiple Maniacs” would have ensured his immortality. It is, in its imperfect way, perfect.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge