Multiple Maniacs was John Waters’ first real feature. Mondo Trasho, which came earlier, is a film that the director has always said should have been a short, and he was not happy with the finished product. Also, due to music rights issues, Mondo Trasho will never get a proper DVD release.
Multiple Maniacs was one of the first 60s hangover movies—films that deal with the darker side of the 1960s. Waters and his Dreamlanders were of course a part of that era, but they were pretty much proto-punk in their attitude, as was their audience. It stars Divine, who runs the ‘Cavalcade of Perversion,’ a sideshow that features a series of bizarre acts (including the ‘Puke Eater,’ which was a homage to Ingmar Bergman’s frequent use of vomit in his films). Her lover is Mr David (David Lochary), and they capture, rob and eventually kill passersby. The rest of the film is utterly ridiculous, rolling into sheer madness at the end.
There’s the lesbian ‘rosary job’ in a Church (of course), lobster rape (involving a ‘lobster’ that’s so DIY that one of its arms falls off), and much more. Divine’s role is clearly based on Elizabeth Taylor, but she becomes Godzilla in the end—a monster who is terrorizing the town and has to be taken out. Edith Massey also appears in a small role. It’s the closest thing to a horror film that Waters ever made. His intention was to create a mashup of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Swedish sexploitation films such as I, A Woman. He uses (somewhat ineptly) a variety of zooms and close-ups, in contrast to his later style, and in retrospect, it looks like a bad John Cassavetes film—and like Cassavetes’ Faces, Multiple Maniacs was partly filmed in the director’s own home. Other bits of realism amongst the insanity include the fact that the guy seen shooting heroin really was.
Some of the humour comes out of the fact until Polyester, Waters never had permits to shoot. Seeing the faces of bewildered bystanders as they view the carnage is priceless. The fact that the entire cast and the director were heavily into LSD while making the film helps to make sense of it all.
The film’s ending was radically altered midway through the shoot, as the original plan was to link Divine’s character to the murder of Sharon Tate. A scene was added where Mr. David breaks the news about the Manson Family, which was filmed on the same day it was reported. That has always been one of Waters’s instructions to young filmmakers, to grab ideas from the news and make them into your own plot elements. Around the same time as Multiple Maniacs, the Dreamlanders made a short, The Diane Linklater Story, about the supposed death-by-LSD of the daughter of a popular TV host, which was filmed during the week the story hit the news.
The original movie was shot on 16mm—using the kind of film used at the time to shoot news footage, according to Waters—and because of this film stock, it has not faded. Waters is very happy that Criterion has taken on re-releasing the film: ‘is it ironic, or is it the natural ending to my career, in the best possible way?’ he asks in the commentary. With the re-release, Multiple Maniacs has become Waters’s highest-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes, even looking at it through an intellectual lens which Waters finds hilarious.
The disc includes a riotous commentary from Waters, plus interviews with all the remaining Dreamlanders compiled into a 30-minute documentary, a video essay by Gary Needham, a trailer for the restoration, and a booklet with an essay by Linda Yablonsky.