Multiple Maniacs is a monster movie for people who would rather watch a comedy. It’s gross. It has sensational sex. And in a bravura performance as the story’s maniac in chief, the drag actor known as Divine becomes the most unusual leading lady in cinema right before our eyes.
The twang of a dirty blues guitar riffing under the opening credits signals the good times ahead. The fun starts a moment later, when a brazen pitchman in a tailcoat and string tie appears before the sad white tent where Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversion—“the sleaziest show on earth”—is about to begin.
Speaking into a microphone that appears to be unconnected to amplification, the pitchman lures innocent pedestrians passing through a wintry wood with promises of deviant behavior extreme enough to excite any appetite for gratuitous violence, foul language, pronounced nudity, unbridled lust, or incurable psychosis.
It’s obvious (to us) that David Lochary’s character, Mr. David, is a con artist. For one thing, he looks like a demented ringmaster on a bender—bleached hair descending to his shoulders from a point high on his forehead, mustache trimmed in a dastardly inverted V, coat embroidered with silvery froufrou. What’s more, he talks too fast.
Nonetheless, the unsuspecting white, middle-class suburbanites gathering around Mr. David—dressed for church, for business, or, perhaps, for cocktails—listen to the spiel he delivers, possibly because it sounds so sincere. “This isn’t any cheap X-rated film or any fifth-rate porno play,” he insists, spitting out the words. “Not actors, not paid impostors, but real, actual filth!” Promising “the most flagrant violations of natural law known to man,” he launches into a litany of unmentionable acts to be performed live—and for free. That does it. The putative thrill seekers are hooked.
Inside the tent, they react with undisguised contempt for the unique talents of the barely clothed actors—a puke eater, an armpit sniffer, a bicycle-seat licker, a junkie in the throes of withdrawal, and “actual queers kissing on the lips”—but they keep watching anyway, oblivious to any danger. In fact, the revue is an elaborate bait-and-switch scheme to liberate them from their valuables.
Cut to the dressing room, where Lady Divine—a mountainous diva, nude and in overemphatic makeup—waves off the suddenly submissive Mr. David’s urgent pleas that she dress and make her entrance. When she does, it’s with a loaded gun that she doesn’t hesitate to fire into the crowd, instantly quieting a terrorized woman. “She’s not injured, honey,” cries the star, cackling with murderous glee. “She’s dead!”
And that’s just the start.
Multiple Maniacs was the second feature that Waters wrote, produced, shot, directed, and promoted in his native Baltimore, where all his films are set. It debuted there, in a church, then his favorite venue. At the time, he was a college dropout—actually, he’d been thrown out—with a handful of 8 mm shorts under his belt (trial runs, as it were), as well as his previous feature, Divine’s first starring vehicle, Mondo Trasho, shot on 16 mm in city gutters while his company ducked police (not always successfully). It climaxed, so to speak, in a pigpen.
That movie set him up for Multiple Maniacs, his “first talkie,” as he has described it, because its dialogue was synced to the action. Waters has said in interviews that his only objective was to make “underground” films like Andy Warhol—he also cites Ingmar Bergman, Russ Meyer, and Herschell Gordon Lewis among his exploitation heroes—and to dedicate himself to disrupting the status quo and offending everyone, while also inducing eruptions of laughter.
Shot in 1970, again on black-and-white 16 mm film, Multiple Maniacs proved to be the raw material that Waters would “refine” for Pink Flamingos, the shock fest that brought him nationwide notoriety on midnight-movie screens two years later.
Today, we look back on the seventies as an exciting time for filmmakers of all sorts and budgets, from Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman to Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Tobe Hooper. That decade was also the heyday of the midnight movie. Before the advent of cable television, that’s where the adventurous, and the usually stoned, went to see unrated films that weren’t quite art but were too explicit or foreign to play in first-run theaters, or had too much plot to be considered experimental. Midnight movies were for people who stayed out all night and weren’t afraid of anything.
Waters continued to make heroes of villains by extolling the underside of human nature with 1974’s Female Trouble (more disgusting and deranged misfits) and 1977’s Desperate Living (homeless killers), then launched into Polyester (1981), a comedy about a pornographer that cast Divine as a housewife opposite the director’s first bona fide Hollywood name, Tab Hunter, a fifties teen heartthrob who was, by this time, more or less forgotten. The game-changing Hairspray came next, in 1988, bringing the Waters sensibility into the mainstream.
Waters used to speak of Multiple Maniacs as his “celluloid atrocity.” For him, absolutely nothing is sacred. Not sex. Not religion. Not family or even life itself. In quick succession, every scene in Multiple Maniacs breaks the taboos of civilized society—at least as it was in 1970—and adds a few no one had thought of before.
It’s certainly hard to beat for authenticity. This movie is genuine trash, disgusting in some ways, slapstick in others. Essentially, it’s a cartoon that not only spoofs every B-grade Hollywood genre all in one go but also sets a family drama within a salacious critique of the Catholic Church. That’s ambitious.
Most of all, it’s funny. And also fun, the way trashy stories that scandalize the self-righteous always are. Waters is the great scourge of know-it-alls, hypocrites, bigots, and politicians, and a powerful satirist of American life.
Today, partly thanks to him, everything is acceptable. That can be a problem for such a filmmaker. So now he writes books—funny books, memoirs of his life in film. He also takes to the road, creating stand-up comedy routines that he performs in nightclubs across the country. After Hairspray became a hit—and later a huge, globally celebrated musical—he started bringing the moral outrage underlying his films into sculpture and photography that he regularly exhibits in galleries, which tend to accept whatever defies every other category of expression. Art breaks the rules of convention without quite breaking the law, instead rewriting it.
With his art, Waters continues to lift the veil of hypocrisy from the Hollywood he has been scandalizing all along. And the films he made before Hairspray still make people retch and shriek. Once, twenty-five years after its making, I screened Pink Flamingos for seniors at an art college in New York. It got a few giggles and gasps but mostly elicited a strange silence. A few students left the room. Two told their parents that I was corrupting them, and that I should be fired. I wonder what would have happened if I’d chosen Multiple Maniacs instead?
In this story of lust, murder, and mayhem, Lady Divine is a jealous common-law wife who spends much of the film either looking for love or trying to bring the bacon home to her concupiscent daughter, Cookie (Cookie Mueller), who can’t tolerate her mother’s resentful partner. Mr. David knows better than to cross swords with his hotheaded lover. He knows he’s on the way out so gives in to the ministrations of Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), a blonde bombshell who comes on to him by repeatedly declaring, “I want to perform acts with you!” When Lady Divine learns from the nearly toothless proprietor of a local bar (Edith Massey) that David is stepping out on her, she vows to exact vengeance.
On her way to the bar, Lady Divine is mugged and dragged into a doorway, humiliated. Afterward, tottering down the street in skintight clothes that accentuate her expansive proportions, she meets a religious fanatic in tarty widow’s weeds (Mink Stole), who leads her to the sanctuary of a nearby church. Once inside, Lady Divine recalls the stations of the cross in a vision that culminates in an unprecedented sexual liaison involving a rosary. Only Waters could come up with a topper that would be even more surreal—a rapist in the form of a giant lobster three times the size of its overwhelmed victim.
Shooting began with a budget of $5,000 that Waters had borrowed from his father (as he had the money for all his previous films), a camera on loan from a television news crew, and a little help from his friends and neighbors. They formed the core of Dreamland Studios, his production and repertory company. While production designer Vincent Peranio had a genius for creating props and decor, none of the actors had any more formal training than Waters did. Luckily, they were game enough to meet the demands of a director who might have caused professionals to call in the cops.
Waters learned his trade mainly by watching every kind of movie, at least one a day, usually more. As a youth, he went to drive-ins as well as art houses and porn theaters. During his brief career in college, he often cut school to see the latest trash. And he was still at it even after he became a recognizable figure in cities well beyond Baltimore.
I know this from personal experience. I met Waters on the night Pink Flamingos premiered in New York, introduced by a mutual friend who hosted a party for the Dreamland cast and crew. I’d never known such unusual people, and quickly became close friends with several. The actors among them were as funny, outspoken, and daring as the characters they played, but better looking, and they had a certain thrift-shop glamour. They lived their fantasies. Every outfit was a costume, except for Divine’s. Out of character (and makeup), he was a gentle soul who favored a gray or white mechanic’s jumpsuit.
One afternoon early in our friendship, I went with Waters to a movie I no longer recall. I think it was his third of the day, which was far from over. I was either bored by the movie’s stupidity or irritated by its thirst for blood. He loved it. That’s when I learned that, though he has sophisticated taste in books, clothes, music, art, and people, he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to films. Gory movies, historical epics, musicals, costume dramas, thrillers, foreign films, exploitation films—whatever—he wants to see them all. (Alert viewers of Multiple Maniacs may notice that the decor of Lady Divine’s apartment—actually Waters’ own home—includes posters for some of the sex and art films that inspired its director.)
Multiple Maniacs won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s too outrageous to be frightening, and too funny to take seriously. The acting is relatively amateur, the action clumsily staged. What makes it work is the seriousness of purpose that Waters, one of the most disciplined artists alive, brought to its making.
Indignation grounds this and every one of his films, whether they’re taking on religion, gay icons, bigotry, homelessness, the dictates of beauty, the desire for fame, or middle-class complacency. This is what makes him a subversive filmmaker, not the lewd or criminal behavior that his characters embrace. They may be savage and strange, but they have principles. That’s why Edith informs on David’s betrayal (not just because she’s a snitch), and what causes Lady Divine to mete out her own form of justice, equally divine. “Now you’re a maniac,” she tells her reflection. “What a state of mind that can be! How exciting. How stimulating! And now you’re alone.”
Well, not quite. Multiple Maniacs puts Lady Divine in the pantheon of poignant monsters inhabited by Frankenstein’s creation and King Kong, except that she’s human, and the kind of havoc she wreaks is recognizable from the behavior of real-life extremists. Which is more complicated.
Only the cognoscenti in Baltimore saw the film on its original release, and though it was later a midnight hit in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, until recently it remained mostly under the filmgoing radar. (In some countries, of course, it would be illegal.) I didn’t catch up with it till the early nineties, when an art house in New York held a Waters festival.
I was struck by how much the film’s aesthetic had influenced popular culture, which I could see in styles affected by, say, early Madonna, and in television shows featuring especially flamboyant or mean characters. But for reasons unrelated to its content, it was also hard to watch. By then, Divine, David Lochary, and Cookie Mueller were deceased, and watching them as they had been was a heartache. In addition, the sound was awful, the lighting bad, and the image blurry. I could hardly make out what anyone was saying, even though the actors screamed their lines throughout. That was because Waters had recorded whatever sound the camera picked up directly onto the film stock. Fearing the dialogue wouldn’t be audible, he ordered his cast to shout.
Thanks to new technology, this restoration is an amazing improvement. The film is no longer deafening, and the image is crisp. It’s eminently watchable, and that makes it easier to appreciate its daring and humor.
Over time, the press and the public have branded Waters variously as the Pope of Trash, the King of Bad Taste, the Prince of Puke, and the People’s Pervert. With Multiple Maniacs, he earned them all.