High Waters Mark: 1970 Freak Show ‘Multiple Maniacs’ Oozes Back Into Theaters


This is the one where a guy eats his own puke. The one where Divine stabs a boyfriend to death, gorges on his innards, then makes out with her own bloodied image in the mirror. The one where she’s sodomized with a rosary while we see images of the Crucifixion. Oh, it’s also the one where she’s raped by a giant lobster. John Waters’s utterly deranged second feature, released in 1970 but hard to find for years, has just been restored and is now back in theaters. But don’t worry, it still looks like shit: To say this was shot on a dime is an insult to dimes.

So many of Waters’s films are carnivals in spirit, but this one is about an actual carnival. When we first meet her, the director’s longtime muse Divine is leading a “Cavalcade of Perversion” — a traveling collection of fetish acts and grotesqueries to which random viewers have to be dragged kicking and screaming. Once the carnival is over, the audience is robbed. One day, Divine decides to start actually killing them. Her underlings conspire against her. It doesn’t end well, for anybody.

Waters has said he wanted Multiple Maniacs to look like a bad John Cassavetes film, which is a cute and John Waters–y thing to say, but it doesn’t really do justice to the ambition of this thing — to its delirious overload of symbols and genres and indignities. At times it feels like a crime drama, sometimes a monster movie, sometimes a porno flick — all gone horribly wrong. From the proclamatory camp dialogue to the surreally drifting camera, the film demonstrates a hypnotic, knowing ineptitude; Waters knows it’s bad and revels in it. It doesn’t have the narrative confidence of his later films, like Pink Flamingos or Polyester. (My god, I just used “narrative confidence” and “John Waters” in the same sentence.) But it’s so its own thing that you can’t help but be in awe of it. Some have deemed it a parody of Sixties art cinema, but I’m not sure that works; Waters’s style as both writer and director is too sui generis to ever feel imitative.

I’d prefer to call this a work of prophetic runoff — as if all the collective bad juju of Fifties conformism, Sixties liberationism, and America’s religious anxieties had seeped into the director’s beautifully twisted mind and then emerged as unholy writ. Maybe that’s why at times the film seems to be railing at things that have not yet come to pass: at the Seventies’ twin pillars of authoritarianism and hedonism, at the Reagan era and its caveman patriotism, even at the over-the-top Catholic imagery of future movie-brat gods Coppola and Scorsese. A riveting orgy of bad taste and bad art, it lays waste to that which came before it and threatens to birth something apocalyptic and new. It’s the Manson Murders of cinema.

Multiple Maniacs

Written and directed by John Waters

Janus Films

Opens August 5, IFC Center