Multiple Maniacs (John Waters, 1970, USA)

Multiple Maniacs, John Waters’ first “talkie”, already displays the obsessions that would come to dominate its directors’ entire career. Made for a shoestring budget ($5,000), Waters shot the film in his native Baltimore with a cast of misfit friends who would come to be known as the Dreamlanders. Maniacs represents a fusion of Waters’ cinematic obsessions – ostensibly a cult movie, the film features loads of gore and takes a great deal of inspiration from the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (the title itself is a reference to Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs!). At the same time, Waters’ admits in the film’s Blu-ray commentary that the film’s satirical and ironic tone didn’t actually resonate with grindhouse audiences. The result was an exploitation film meant for arthouse theaters. Fittingly Janus Films re-released the film in 2016.

Shot in the gritty 16mm film stock of local news reports, there is something charming about the amateur aesthetic of the film. Luckily the new transfer of the film looks great (as Waters himself described it – “a bad Cassavetes film”). The black and white cinematography clearly owes something to Waters’ idol Ingmar Bergman and other lesser known Swedish films of the 1960s – referenced in the posters on the walls of one of the apartments featured in the film. 

The film revolves around the “Cavalcade of Perversion”, a circus troupe of freaks led by Waters’ muse Divine. The film descends into infighting among the troupe. Along the way, we are treated to outrageous scenes like a full retelling of the Stations of the Cross (interspersed with a truly blasphemous encounter in a church between Divine and Mink Stole), and Divine being assaulted by a human-sized lobster. While Multiple Maniacs is not the strongest film in Waters’ canon, it is an audacious debut that still has the ability to shock. On the basis of the success of the film, Waters’ would go onto create a more polished version with his follow-up Pink Flamingos.

7/10

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