'Multiple Maniacs': Film Review

Lawrence Irvin
Sweet sacrilege!
8/5/2016

Watch Divine get raped by a giant lobster and violated with rosary beads in John Waters' legendary 'Cavalcade of Perversion,' restored by the Criterion Collection.

In an appreciation of the city's most infamous offspring, John Waters, The Baltimore Sun once wrote, "Waters cultivates sleaze like a rare orchid … he is to Baltimore what Ingmar Bergman was to Sweden." How fitting then that the underground cinema outlaw's breakout second feature, Multiple Maniacs, is being reissued in theaters by Janus Films, the prestige label that first brought giants of world art cinema, including Bergman, to American audiences in the late '50s and early '60s.

The glorious restoration premiered in June at the Provincetown Film Festival and will be released by the Criterion Collection on DVD. But the chance to savor this 1970 lowlife classic on a big screen at midnight is not to be passed up.

The original 16mm black-and-white reverse positive has been scanned in 4K resolution and the mono soundtrack digitized in a restoration supervised by the director, sticking with his preferred European-style 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Waters has described the result as looking like "a bad John Cassavetes film," and the occasional lovingly preserved bit of schmutz on the lens only adds to the fragrantly raw effect. Given that much of the original music was lifted from Waters’ record collection without rights clearance, a mostly new score has been added of jaunty rockabilly by George S. Clinton.

The movie's title pays homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis' splatter classic Two Thousand Maniacs! But Waters also tips his hat to Tod Browning's Freaks and to the Manson Family, while simultaneously exploring the blasphemous outer limits of his Catholicism. A Stations of the Cross fantasy sparked by the lascivious leading lady's sexual-religious rapture can only be described as The Passion of the Christ on Quaaludes, with the sublime Edith Massey as a weeping Virgin Mary.

Watching vintage Waters in this age of PC cautiousness and shrill conservatism is both thrilling and disturbing. If the sacrilegious extremes don't make you squirm, the campy rape humor might, not to mention the deeply uncomfortable note of watching drag superstar Divine salivate over killing cops. Recent events cast a dark shadow over that kind of flippant anti-authority provocation, a reminder of a more naive time. But if you take the film's badass lunacy seriously enough to be outraged then you're at the wrong movie.

Likewise if you're looking for technical polish. The unrefined edges, haphazard camerawork, and let's just call it loose plotting are all part of the tawdry pleasure of a no-budget work that plucks with wild abandon from 1950s Hollywood melodrama, Roger Corman-style exploitation and European new wave (that internal monologue voiceover is priceless).

The film stands as an anarchic slap in the face to the era's peace-and-love credo of hippie harmony, and it demands to be approached in that irreverent spirit. Fans of Waters' subsequent, more widely seen movies, including Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, will recognize themes and character types that became staples in the director's output, as well as the delicious reprobates who formed his regular acting company, the Dreamlanders — among them David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Susan Lowe and Massey.

First glimpsed as a very Rubens-esque reclining nude, Waters' late great iconic star heads up a traveling sideshow act called Lady Divine's Cavalcade of Perversion. The troupe includes underwear fetishists, bicycle seat sniffers and armpit lickers, a human ashtray, a puke eater and a naked pyramid, not to mention "kissing queers" and a heroin addict writhing in cold-turkey agony. Unsuspecting thrill-seekers lured in by Divine's lover and master of ceremonies, Mr. David (Lochary), are then fleeced, and sometimes shot up with opiates or even killed. It's what we now call immersive theater.

But trouble starts when Mr. David attempts to introduce his clandestine lover Bonnie (Pearce, doing a gutter-rat Jean Harlow) into the act and Lady Divine dismisses her as common trash. Dueling murder plots ensue, with Mr. David and Bonnie holed up in a dive hotel scheming to wipe out Lady Divine, while she sets out to locate and kill them.

En route, Lady Divine gets dragged into an alley and assaulted by glue-sniffers, one of them a bearded cross-dresser. "I'd been raped before, but never in such an unnatural and brutal way," she huffs in voiceover. Then, in the movie's most outré episode, the Infant of Prague appears before her, complete with crown and ermine robe, leading Lady Divine to St. Cecilia's Church. There, she has an intimate encounter with a woman in a bejeweled Norma Desmond turban, known as "the religious whore" (Mink Stole). That notorious scene has been dubbed "the rosary job."

Inflamed by betrayal and tragedy, Lady Divine's murderous delirium peaks after she gnaws on the entrails of her dead lover, makes out with a full-length mirror and then gets raped again, this time by a giant lobster. That Ed Wood-worthy monster is the creation of Vincent Peranio, who would go on to become Waters' regular production designer, as well as working on Baltimore productions like The Wire. Divine's screams of pain and pleasure during the extended bout of crustacean carnality are the high point of a fearless performance that draws equally from Elizabeth Taylor-style glamor, tough-broad attitude in the Barbara Stanwyck or Susan Hayward mold, and a dash of Bette Davis' acerbity.

The film climaxes with Lady Divine on a rampaging crime spree, dressed in a fur coat and bloodied slip, and accompanied by an appropriately tempestuous section of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" — "Mars, the Bringer of War." That chaotic final section does meander a bit, but it's worth the wait to see — spoiler alert! — a berserk Divine gunned down by the National Guard out front of a quaintly named Baltimore grocery emporium called Midget Food Store. The moment is solemnified by the patriotic sound of "America the Beautiful," performed by the John Halloran Singers.

Waters inched a fraction closer to the mainstream later in his career with films like Polyester, Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom, which nonetheless retained their lusty embrace of bad taste and gleeful depravity. His subversive mischief makes him a treasure among American underground filmmakers, and Multiple Maniacs represents undiluted Waters, not to mention a starring vehicle for the immortal Divine in peerless form.

Distributor: Janus Films
Production company: Dreamland Studios
Cast: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller, Rick Morrow, Susan Lowe, Paul Swift, Howard Gruber, Vincent Peranio, George Figgs
Producer-director-screenwriter-director of photography-editor: John Waters
Music: George S. Clinton

Not rated, 96 minutes

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