Given the vast catalog of tasteless sleaze that has sprung from the mind of director John Waters (Polyester, Hairspray, Crybaby), it’s hard to imagine depths to which he hasn’t sunk, but a lovingly restored print of 1970’s Multiple Maniacs from the fine folks at the Criterion Collection might just check off a few boxes heretofore left seemingly empty.
Even mega-fans of the Baltimore filth-master’s body of work probably haven’t seen Waters’ second feature film, as it wasn’t until August of this year that it hit theaters. For many, this is wonderful news—a further glimpse into the early years of a depraved tastemaker (so to speak) and outlier of cinema. For others, however, it will prove confusing and borderline sickening, though that’s exactly what Waters wants, so you should probably just go with it.
In Maniacs, the nefarious Lady Divine (played by stalwart Waters collaborator and dear friend Divine, RIP) runs The Cavalcade of Perversions, a sort of freak show with attractions that, for the era, were far more heinous than mere bearded ladies. Of course, it’s Waters’ twisted sense of humor that would find squares moved to nausea by such attractions as hairy armpits, puke-eaters and even queers (gasp!), but the underlying subtext suggests that all of us have our bizarre sexual tastes and hardly anyone can say no to a good old-fashioned tent full of freaks.
Lady Divine uses the show as a way to lure in people she can rob at gunpoint, but after stealing for some time, she’s bored with mere robbery and has begun to develop a lust for blood. This doesn’t sit well with her boyfriend, Mr. David (David Lochary), and a series of misunderstandings, sacrilegious sexual encounters and that trademarked John Waters bad taste come to a head with some of the most shocking and disgusting scenes of his career—and that’s really saying something.
Maniacs is not the film for everyone, even for those who might think they’re John Waters fans after seeing his musical films or even something like Serial Mom. Cinema laymen, the easily disturbed or even those who aren’t familiar with Waters’ core style or affinity for freaking people out will have trouble getting past the content, while anyone with high standards for cinematic professionalism will find the disjointed story, poor quality and campy acting to be frustrating. The early Waters films were never about palatable experiences or even being well-made, though, so seasoned vets will find exactly what they’re looking for. In a way, it’s almost like Waters’ reaction to the cultish yet familial workings of the Manson family; a powerful and sexually-charged demagogue using her magnetism and penchant for violence to get what she wants from those with weaker wills.
If nothing else, it’s exciting to see Waters mainstays like Divine in an unfamiliar film, and the next-level appearance from Mink Stole (Lost Highway) is quite intense even by today’s standards, or for Waters himself. Still, it remains an important piece of cinematic history, an eye-opening piece of an American icon’s early work.
Directed by John Waters
With Divine, Lochary and Stole
Center for Contemporary Arts,