In the early days of his career one of American cinema’s best known underground filmmakers came up with a movie so audacious that it completely defied respectable audience expectations. Yet through its warped aesthetic it somehow managed to provide a legitimate commentary regarding contemporary US society. Mark Fraser looks back at a truly scurrilous work which, despite itself, remains both socially and politically astute.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
If it’s true, as some have maintained, that John Water’s 1970 Multiple Maniacs is about the end of the 1960s, at what point in the film does the story transition into the next decade?
Although there may be a few answers to this one – including the moment when the director, somewhat presciently, introduces a trigger happy National Guard during the movie’s climatic rampage scene – one could argue it is when Lady Divine (Glenn Milstead AKA Divine) is raped by a giant lobster after helping perpetrate a Manson Family-style slaughter involving just about every other leading member of the cast.
While this campy act of surreal sexual violation may be construed as being nothing more than another one of Water’s outrageous shock tactics, it could, if looked at in a certain way, be seen as a subversive statement about the evolution of early 1970s radical feminism.
Admittedly this interpretation may seem a little far-fetched. Given everything that has happened on the screen during the previous 86 or so minutes, however, it’s not totally off-the-wall.
Multiple Maniacs is, after all, a work which not only purposely sets out to offend the sensibilities of many in its collective audience, but is also one that has a few things to say about the times in which it was made.
Greed, voyeurism, exploitation, betrayal, perversion, fetishism, deception, sexual liberation, smugness, repression, crime, hypocrisy, drug use, religion – all of these issues are touched upon by Waters in a movie which, in its own strange way, owes as much to Jean-Luc Godard as it does to Herschell Gordon Lewis*.
This is not to say Multiple Maniacs is some kind of misunderstood or clumsy masterpiece, because in all honesty it’s not. Nor, one suspects, does it ever really try to be.
But it is driven by a mischievously demented intelligence; a kind of scurrilous and twisted logic that manages to be oddly astute while deliriously depraved at the same time. If anything, this is a movie which truly has something on its mind.
Like all of Waters earlier features (namely Mondo Trasho , Pink Flamingos , Female Trouble  and Desperate Living ), the plot of Multiple Maniacs – when put down on paper – sounds completely ludicrous.
When the murderous Lady Divine, owner of The Cavalcade of Perversion (“the sleaziest show on Earth”), finds out her dandy boyfriend/front man Mr David (David Lochary) is having an affair with blond bombshell Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), she goes to kill her cuckolding beau, but on the way is held down and raped just off the street by a couple of glue sniffers (Howard Guber and Susan Lowe).
Following this ordeal she is led to the Church of St Cecilia by the Infant of Prague (Michael Renner) where, while having a religious epiphany in which holy intervention seemingly approves of her murder plan, she is seduced by Mink (Mink Stole), also known as the Religious Whore, who sodomises her with some rosary beads. As a result they briefly become a lesbian item.
Along with their new partners, both Lady Divine and Mr David plot to kill each other, a development that leads them all to Cookie Divine’s apartment (the good Lady’s daughter, played by Cookie Mueller), wherein a Mansonesque murder spree takes place – with the innocent victims including the pot smoking Cookie and cavalcade performer Ricky (Rick Morrow).
It’s during this scene of carnage that things become really bizarre.
Upon stabbing Mr David to death, Lady Divine cuts him open and starts eating his internal organs, this wanton act of cannibalism sending both her and Mink into a blood curdling state of arousal, during which they entertain the possibility of slaying celebrities like the Pope, Ronald Reagan (and his family) and Barbara Streisand in a similar manner.
But this plan is short lived when Mink inadvertently shoots Ricky and Lady Divine retaliates by stabbing her to death too. Then, when the “leading lady” finds her dead daughter’s body, she goes into a delirious meltdown and vows to terrorise the rest of society. It’s at this time the giant lobster (called Lobstora) comes out of nowhere (well, from screen right actually) and rapes her.
Afterwards, the frothing-at-the mouth Godzilla-like Lady Divine takes to the sometimes snowing/sometimes not snowing streets of Baltimore, causing a good deal of havoc before being gunned down by the National Guard.
Looking at all this from a rational point-of-view, Multiple Maniacs could be construed as being nothing more than a series of gross and outrageous vignettes which merely aim to push the outer limits of exploitative and independent cinema – a Potpourri of claptrap wherein some of the histrionic-driven acting is pretty terrible, much of the dialogue seems improvised (although Lochary in particularly manages to pull off his lines with a certain amount of verve, while Divine’s voiceover narration during the church scene is undeniably hilarious) and a good portion of the camerawork (by Waters) is sloppy. Furthermore, many truly vile elements in the story (like murder, rape, cannibalism and “puke eating” as entertainment) are treated with frivolous disdain.
Indeed, by the time the closing credits roll, one could argue that the movie has next to no redeeming qualities.
To write it off in such a way, though, would be a tragic mistake as Multiple Maniacs has a lot to say, even if its message appears mostly indigestible.
As mentioned earlier, the film is about a society (America) on the brink of major change as its modern age of innocence comes to a grinding halt.
Historically, it’s arguable that the hippy-driven idealism of the Sixties really did conclude during August 1969 when Charles Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasbian and Patricia Krenwinkel – members of Charles Manson’s so-called Family – brutally murdered Sharon Tate Polanski, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon as part of an effort to help Manson start a race war. (As a point of interest, Waters, arguably in bad taste, comically incorporates the murders into his story as a kind of side plot; one which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t go anywhere.)
In Multiple Maniacs, the freewheeling/anything goes lifestyle of all the characters concerned finally ends in the Cookie apartment slaughter, the result being the launch of a different kind of conflict as lone survivor Lady Divine slips over the edge and – to the strains of Gustav Holst’s Mars: The Bringer of War – takes on the rest of society.
The fact she is gunned down by the National Guard was also a sign of things to come. While the film was initially released in April 1970, it was just one month later (on May 4) that the Ohio National Guard shot some anti-Vietnam War protestors at Kent State University – an event which is also considered a seminal moment in America’s collective realisation that the idealism of the 1960s was nothing more than an unsustainable illusion.
Additionally, the rosary beads scene in the church between Mink and Lady Divine, which is juxtaposed with a flashback to the crucifixion of Jesus (referred to as The Stations of the Cross), is somewhat visionary on behalf of the director. Although it took some time for hard core pornography to become mainstream, the early and more “acceptable” pornographic works of the early 1970s didn’t include sexual acts involving anal beads. Fast forward 20 years, however, and it’s a completely different story.
Even Waters’ seemingly gratuitous focus on gore (read the organ eating scene) can claim a modicum of foresight. Of course Lewis had all but perfected his vicious grindhouse oeuvre by 1970 – and George A Romero had made Night of the Living Dead in 1968 – but it took just another two years before this stomach churning stuff became more mainstream with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972).
Bearing all this in mind, it’s fair to say American society was never really the same after the arrival of Multiple Maniacs.
Then there’s the feminist angle. As already suggested, the movie was also quite forward-looking when it (consciously or not) anticipated the ongoing impact of another politically-driven social movement, that being radical feminism.
Admittedly this may be a contentious point given the second feminist wave started in the early 1960s. However, it must be remembered that the influential Redstockings group – whose manifesto stated that male supremacy “is the oldest, most basic form of domination” and men “have controlled all political, economic and cultural institutions and backed up this control with physical force”** – was only formed in 1969, the same year as the Manson Family murders and (one presumes) the filming of Multiple Maniacs.
Although Lady Divine is not a “female” victim in any classical sense, she still epitomises the suppression of women, having been cuckolded by a male (Mr David) and raped by the glue sniffer before losing her daughter in what could loosely be construed as a battle for gender supremacy.
With the arrival of Lobstora, the gloves are taken off and the true figurative feminist beast is finally unleashed as it was in 1970 when books like Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and womens’ health booklet Our Bodies were published.
(And, in another significant 1970 development, the late New York lawyer and prominent female/gay rights activist Bella Abzug [1920-1998] – who helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 along with Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan – was elected to the US House of Representatives.)
The fact Lady Divine is eventually gunned down by a male-dominated state apparatus is itself metaphorical of the battle women would eventually have in the coming decade as they took on the existing gender hegemony.
Once again Waters – who has called himself a radical feminist (see Slantmagazine.com, August, 2016) – deserves some credit for his farsightedness.
Having said all this, there is one aspect of the 1960s which Multiple Maniacs does not address, and that’s the Civil Rights Movement.
At its heart it is undeniably a very white work – with not one major or minor character in the film being an African American. As a result, despite its efforts to lampoon everything from religion and societal taboos to gender imbalance, it fails to make any comment about race relations in the US.
While this doesn’t necessarily make Multiple Maniacs inadvertently racist (which it obviously isn’t), perhaps this omission should be the target for any offended viewer (or critic) – who really wants to hate this work because of its overall bad taste and profaneness – to concentrate on.
After all, the passing of almost 50 years has seen much of the outrageous stuff depicted on the screen, which seemed so exploitative back in 1970, become a little passé. As a result Multiple Maniacs has, over time, become harder to dislike.
This fact alone shows what a great filmmaker Waters really is.
*The film’s title, not to mention some of its methodology, is a tribute to Lewis’ 1964 schlocker 2000 Maniacs.
**Taken from History is a Weapon – Redstockings Manifesto (1969), which can be found on the Internet. The feminism details were also sourced from the Web (Wikipedia).
Clayton Dillard: “John Waters on Multiple Maniacs, Taste and Politics”,
Slantmagazine.com, August 2, 2016
CRITERION COLLECTION SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
In this stunning Blu-ray reissue of Multiple Maniacs, the original 16mm reversal positive was scanned in 4K resolution at Metropolis Post in New York City, while the original 16mm monaural magnetic soundtrack was digitised in 96K 24-bit resolution at DJ Audio in Burbank, California. The digital picture and sound restoration was performed at The Criterion Collection in New York and supervised by Waters.
The director also appears on an entertaining audio commentary, as do crew members Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, George Figgs, Lowe and Stole in a series of interviews.
Additionally, the disc features a video essay by scholar Gary Needham, an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky and the film’s trailer.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Multiple Maniacs on Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion. Multiple Maniacs was released on dual format Blu-ray March 20, 2017.
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