Criterion Review: Multiple Maniacs


Depravity and bad taste are the watchwords of director John Waters’ unique oeuvre, none more so than his unhinged 1970 effort Multiple Maniacs – even if its shock value is perhaps not as finely sharpened as his bad taste masterpiece Pink Flamingos. Multiple Maniacs’ grimy cinematography, bonkers performances and showstopping turn from regular collaborator Divine make this indispensable viewing for aficionados of the strange, the surreal and the downright depraved.

Lady Divine (herself) is running her bizarre freak show, the Cavalcade of Perversions, as a front for robbing and occasionally murdering her patrons. Boasting a bill that includes heroin addicts going cold turkey, the ‘puke-eater’, and an ‘auto-erotica copraphrasiac’, Divine’s show attracts and repels her polite suburban punters in equal measure. In classic John Waters style, the Cavalcade satirises bourgeois moralising by making us cheer for the monsters of his film – the marginalised, the transgressive, the criminal. Divine’s boyfriend Mr David (David Lochary), is conducting an affair with Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), sending Divine on a warpath of destruction, though not before she has her own fun with the mysterious Mink (Mink Stole) in a church – you’ll never look at rosary beads in the same way after you’ve seen what Divine does with them.

There’s not much more to Multiple Maniacs’ plot, which is more of an excuse to hang together a series of deranged scenes. At 47 years old, Waters’ film is still edgy enough to make even David Lynch look vanilla, and if the borderline amateurish production values don’t prove too much for some, then the absurd content surely will. However, for the broad-minded there is much to love about Multiple Maniacs. It’s easy to miss the importance of Waters’ film underneath the grime and the revulsion, but this is real, visceral independent film making, kicking and screaming on to the screen in an artistic coup the likes of which only John Waters is capable.

How many other home releases this month can boast a psychotic drag queen as it star, let alone one who we are actively encouraged to cheer on? The film’s punk sensibilities are in equal measure charming and unapologetically acerbic, and while this is Waters’ film through and through, few filmmakers create a such a palpable sense of solidarity and community with their cast. Multiple Maniacs is at least as much Divine’s monster as it is the director’s, and the entire cast are clearly having a blast playing their part in the madness. Multiple Maniacs is a reminder of Waters’ importance as a voice for the marginalised, the strange and the ignored.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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