in Criterion Month

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

How does one go about reviewing a movie like Multiple Maniacs? I struggled with roughly this same dilemma last year when I reviewed Beyond The Valley of The Dolls, so perhaps I’m more equipped than I otherwise would’ve been. Although, Dolls at least had the kind of (surprisingly) accomplished technical qualities that made it a complete anomaly in the Hollywood studio system. Multiple Maniacs, however, takes that same kind of trashy aesthetic and somehow makes it even trashier, with a nothing budget and the barely actors known as the Dreamland players. And yet, somehow, its absurd depravity is something hard not to still be shocked and entertained by, even 50 years after a murder-happy Divine strutted the streets of Baltimore.

It probably goes without saying that the plot of a John Waters movie is beside the point, but I’ll try to distill it as best I can. Basically, the film begins by focusing on what is more or less a freak show, as we see the show’s ringleader Mr. David (David Lochery) touting the show as containing the sickest filth you ever seen. We then witness this, by seeing a rag-tag bunch of hippie weirdos doing mostly hippie weirdo stuff, the weirdest of which is a guy referred to as “the puke-eater” doing exactly what you’d expect. We’re then introduced to the show’s star, Lady Divine (played by who else but Divine), who then proceeds to tie up the show’s audience, and murder a few of them before the entirety of the show’s company disperses and flees the scene of the crime.

From there, we see Lady Divine’s daughter (Cookie Mueller), who she doesn’t seem to have much fondness for, while we also learn that Mr. David and Divine are a couple. However, when Lady Divine learns that David is cheating on her, she vows to murder him (because she really loves murder). Though, while on her way to seek revenge, she gets raped by two glue-sniffers in broad daylight, which apparently puts in her in a spiritual mood.

So seeking forgiveness for her many sins, she walks into a church and begins to pray. She then notices a woman sitting in one of the pews (Mink Stole) who she has an undeniable attraction to. This quickly leads to the two of them performing a sex act with rosary beads in the church, which is intercut with the crucifixion of Christ, in perhaps the most sublimely blasphemous scene in a film filled with lots of blasphemy. After that, Divine does eventually go on a murder spree involving David and basically everyone she knows. Oh, and she also gets raped by a giant lobster.

Well, that might be the first time I ever actually enjoyed writing the plot recap of a movie in the entire history of Mildly Pleased, because holy shit, that is a lot. Granted, the thing that might not come through in that plot recap is that everything in Multiple Maniacs, John Waters’ precursor to Pink Flamingos, is that it’s all in the name of trashy good fun. Obviously, everything is done with the intent of freaking out squares, while its campy dialogue and campier performances make it clear that if you’re offended by what’s going on onscreen, you’re probably not tuned into the singularly odd vibe that the movie is going for.

It is hard to pin down exactly why this movie is watchable when it probably shouldn’t be. From a filmmaking perspective, its measly budget is more than obvious. The audio isn’t great, some of the actors clearly flub their lines in the middle of scenes, and some scenes seem to go on longer than necessary for no other reason than that it would’ve cost more to make an edit (which would require using more film). Which maybe pads out the film’s running time a bit more than it probably should, since this movie could easily be 70 minutes long instead of 90.

Yet, despite all this, the amateurishness of Multiple Maniacs more often than not makes it all the more charming. Also, there are plenty of moments where you can see that Waters has the eye of a skilled provocateur, particularly in the “bead sex” scene. It’s just that his camera work leaves something to be desired, to the point where you have to wonder whether the crew was able to afford a tripod to rest the camera on. But again, these kinds of details often add to the film’s roughness, which for this kind of lurid subject matter seems more than appropriate.

Though, possibly more than anything else, the film works because of Divine’s performance. It’s hard to make sense of whether what he’s doing here would qualify as “good acting”, but whatever you want to call it, he’s brimming with the kind of charisma and fearlessness that you’d be pressed to find in any actual movie stars. The film’s finale in particular, where Lady Divine basically goes full-on insane, is an absolute marvel to watch, just in terms of sheer audacity. Which I suppose is why Waters and Divine were a match made in filth heaven.