There’s something faintly perverse about the idea of John Waters’ early work being painstakingly restored, especially by the highbrow gatekeepers at Janus Films/Criterion. Audiences originally saw these films in cruddy conditions, on the underground/midnight circuit, and that continued to be the case for decades afterward. Even in the ’90s, seeing Multiple Maniacs (1970)—Waters’ second feature, following the nearly dialogue-free Mondo Trasho—often involved an ancient, beat-up 16mm print projected on a basement wall, which felt absolutely right. Transgression is at the heart of Waters’ ethos; his earliest films, in particular, derive much of their power from the feeling that you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to, as if the movie had somehow escaped keepers who had been entrusted with preventing it from contaminating impressionable minds. All the same, so few people have seen Maniacs (which was only ever issued on VHS) that its theatrical rerelease, while inappropriately respectable, is still a welcome sight.
Shot in low-contrast, frequently grainy black-and-white—Waters approvingly notes that the restoration retroactively makes it look like “a bad John Cassavetes film” (and it really does!)—Multiple Maniacs opens with what amounts to a statement of purpose, as a carnival barker, Mr. David (David Lochary), attracts customers to Lady Divine’s Cavalcade Of Perversion. Curious passersby who take in the free show (or freak show) are “treated” to such attractions as puke-eating, armpit-licking, and a demonstration of severe drug withdrawal symptoms, though it’s all just an excuse to herd customers into a tent, where Lady Divine (drag queen Divine, Waters’ longtime muse) can rob them. The movie’s minimal subsequent narrative involves Lady Divine growing increasingly demented, choosing to murder her victims as well, while Mr. David, her semi-estranged lover, teams up with a peroxide blond (Mary Vivian Pearce) in a plot to kill Lady Divine so they can be together. Characters on the margins include Lady Divine’s daughter, Cookie (Cookie Mueller), a prostitute who spends most of the film topless, and a self-described “religious whore,” Mink Stole (Mink Stole), who sticks a rosary up Lady Divine’s ass in a sex scene shot in a church.
It’s not exactly revelatory to observe that Multiple Maniacs traffics in shock value, given that Waters has actually published a book titled Shock Value. The movie doesn’t qualify as “good” in any conventional sense—it’s poorly shot (Waters sometimes has difficulty just keeping actors in the frame when he has to shift the camera back and forth during a conversation), features semi-improvised dialogue that’s often tediously repetitive (Divine, especially, does a lot of flailing when she runs out of script), and fails to tell any sort of coherent story. But such criticisms are largely irrelevant in the face of Maniacs’ cheerful insanity. What befalls Lady Divine toward the end of the film ranks among the most gloriously WTF moments in cinema history (it’s too amazing even to hint at; don’t read the comments until afterward—experience it fresh for yourself), and if the rest of Multiple Maniacs doesn’t quite achieve that lunatic height, it’s not for lack of trying. Indeed, Waters set the crazy bar so high here that he wound up spending the rest of his career struggling to top himself—“Let’s have Divine genuinely eat dog shit!”—until his work eventually devolved into limp self-parody. For newbies, this is the ideal place to start. Just do your best to pretend you’re seeing it somewhere that isn’t directly adjacent to a Jamba Juice.