In 1970, Waters was 24, had recently dropped out of college, had made three short films (1964’s Hag in a Leather Jacket and 1966’s Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup), and was fresh off directing his first feature length, 1969's Mondo Trasho. All had been made for no money — Waters’ parents funded Multiple Maniacs; he paid them back later “with interest” — exclusively starred his friends, and were shot in his native Baltimore.
Multiple Maniacs, also the first film he ever made to have dialogue (all his previous works had been silent, with only raucous, non-diegetic music filling the speakers), is not unlike a lot of early works from young directors. Though Waters evidently neither cared about a big budget nor proper distribution, in Multiple Maniacs we see a movie that has the same problem found in plenty of debuts: While the talent behind the camera is obvious, zeal is much more bountiful than total coherence.
Still, the film, recently remastered by The Criterion Collection, is a must for Waters devotees. (Newbies should start with 1981’s Polyester or 1990’s Cry-Baby.) We see the seedlings of later, greater features, and interesting is how the filmmaker’s concepts stuck while his execution became so much more cohesive.
Featuring Waters staple Divine and other Dreamlanders in early roles, Multiple Maniacs unsurprisingly makes for a gleefully trashy slab of shlock. Here, being shocking for the sake of being shocking is blasé. This movie has it all: puke-eaters, bicycle seat-lickers, glue-sniffers, lobster-rapists (and regular rapists), adulterers, and murderers. Its storyline is Douglas Sirk mixed with Herschell Gordon Lewis and fetishistic porno, thrown into a Christmas Tree chipper and set alight. Divine appears to be doing his best Elizabeth Taylor impression, and everyone else seems to either be playing a character in Double Indemnity (1944) or Mildred Pierce (1945), except the footage they consumed was partially melted and sped up.
Waters’ vision is ravishing both because he’s able to satirize so many cinematic tropes all the while reinventing them. His love for soap opera’s presentational acting style and hyperbolic dialogue is clear, but so is his liking of the grit of an Ingmar Bergman drama. So much of his cinematic identity is based on the genres popularized by old Hollywood and on the styles of acclaimed auteurs, but another part of it is defined by how much he gets off on offending his audience. In doing so, Waters creates an entirely new kind of filmmaking.
But with Multiple Maniacs, we see him still working to get to that point. The film begins promisingly enough — it’s like watching a 1950s teen movie cut with footage of a femme fatale-driven film noir — but then it loses its way. Loudly.
One extended sequence sees him temporarily dropping his decently funny storyline to recreate the events of the Infant of Prague, alternated with footage of leading lady Divine and supporting player Mink Stole interlocked in a vulgar sexual exchange in a church.
And after the so-called finale, which sees him riffing on the Manson murders (which would be more offensive if it felt like Waters were making a joke of it), a number of surrealistic, long-winded gags come out from the shadows. Mostly futile, they involve Divine being molested by a man in a lobster suit, Divine destroying a muscle car with an axe, and then Divine terrorizing a crowd of innocent bystanders.
On paper, these detours sound likably bombastic. But the first one is far too lengthy, and because the post-finale progression is enacted at the end of a movie we already figure only needed to be a short film, they’re tiresome and gratuitous.
Multiple Maniacs, then, is the definition of an interesting mess. There’s still plenty to revel in, though, like Divine’s always irresistible presence and Waters’ impressive way of making gonzo filmmaking also feel like a fun, community-oriented experience for all on the set. Waters, of course, would make much better. But witnessing his work as a kid filmmaker with a dream is comparable to paging through a diary, and that makes Multiple Maniacs woth a look. B-
Mary Vivian Pearce
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
ohn Waters’ Multiple Maniacs (1970) is a better milestone than it is a movie. As a film, it is rambling, visually jarring, and sometimes grating. But historically, it is essential. Shot for $5,000, the black-and-white Z-picture was only Waters’ second movie but would introduce ideas and themes he’d refine just a few years later with Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974).