It’s testament to John Waters’ determination to push the boundaries of perceived decency that his 1970 sophomore feature, Multiple Maniacs, remains shocking to this day. On its initial release it played at grimy midnight cinemas – completely fitting for its guerrilla style and transgressive content. After long being considered lost, it was lovingly restored last year. That may be incongruous given its seedy origins and subject matter, but it means that UK audiences now have the opportunity to gawk and stare at Divine and her “Cavalcade of Perversion”.
Multiple Maniacs is a barnstorming swirl of rough and ready provocation, as amateurish as it is confrontational. The central narrative – in which Lady Divine (Divine) plots to off her philandering man Mr. David (David Lochary) – is fairly incidental, in reality just providing a bare-boned skeleton for Waters to hang a series of increasingly surreal sequences that career around social taboos and religious preoccupations. Waters approaches Catholic piety with a roaring, Buñuelian relish. A lengthy lesbian sex scene in a church pew features a novel use for a rosary and is cross-cut with the Stations of the Cross.
That it’s just one contender for the most startling moment speaks volumes. In fact, Multiple Maniacs rebels against a wide range of the social mores of the period and appealed, on original release, to members of defiant, niche countercultures. The film opens with a carnivalesque freak show that often prompts comparisons to Todd Browning, and although it contains its fair share of excess, there’s pointed commentary in punters’ willingness to pay to be reviled by two men kissing. Particularly hot on the heels of the Summer of Love. In the decades after the film’s release, Waters has spoken about whether or not he went ‘too far’ and it seems that this was entirely the point.
Violence and mayhem rip to shreds presiding notions of peace and love, and while it can’t always maintain its frenetic momentum, there’s something gripping about the director’s fervour. Clunky line delivery and awkward pacing hardly derail a film that’s heading towards of cannibalism and sexual assault by a giant divine lobster, it’s the gonzo bravado that carries the action. It may never be as funny as something like the work of contemporary provocateur Curt McDowell, but there is eyebrow-raising entertainment to be found its relentless hostility. More than forty-five years after it made its bow on Baltimore’s underground scene, this cult classic’s trashy profanity retains its spark.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson