Stars: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole | Written and Directed by John Waters
It may not be immediately apparent how this – his second feature, a meandering, 16mm extravaganza of micro-budget bad taste made in 1969 – could be John Waters’ highest-rated film on Rotten Tomatoes. But in a way it makes sense: this is Waters distilled. He’s off the leash and in your face from the very first frame, long before he throws a giant lobster at his leading lady.
That leading lady is, of course, the inimitable Divine (herself, aka Harris Glenn Milstead). She’s the matriarch of a travelling performance art group called the “Cavalcade of Perversion”. She’s barking in more ways than one, bellowing at anyone she deems uninteresting, while her sanity seeps away. The Cavalcade tours small town Maryland, presenting suburbanites with the opportunity to see some truly gross behaviour: armpit-licking, puke-eating, and even a “queer kiss”.
Divine is the ultimate diva, but she shares the limelight with Mr David (David Lochary), an MC who is becoming increasingly worried about and frustrated with Divine’s temper, which tends to lead to her shooting patrons at random.
David befriends Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), a young pretender previously discarded by Divine like a piece of tissue. They decide that killing Divine is the only logical course of action. Meanwhile, Divine is coming to the opposite conclusion. After a jauntily-scored rape she is led by The Infant of Prague to a church, where she receives not only an almighty self-realisation, but also a revelatory sexual encounter with The Religious Whore, Mink (Mink Stole), who inspires her to seek her revenge on David.
The church sequence encapsulates everything that the film is trying to achieve: that is, to challenge every notion of good taste that Western society can conjure. Not only is Divine pleasured from behind with a rosary necklace, she simultaneously narrates the story of Christ’s Passion – and not only that, but a reconstruction of Jesus’ sacrifice is intercut with the lesbian romp, with Divine’s orgasmic wailings in place of the Son’s wailing agony.
Divine is a grotesque antihero, but there is undeniably something stirring about her defiant pride in her all-encompassing otherness; she espouses the liberty of the maniac. So vast is her ego that any violence against her is just another marker on the journey to… well, divinity. And as she goes full Godzilla, or possibly King Kong, in the final scenes, we feel the same sadness we felt for those monsters.
Multiple Maniacs is of course impervious to any attempts at objective criticism. Its anarchy – its complete disregard for narrative sense or formal filmmaking craft or character motivation – is its very paradoxical strength. But it could easily have been alienating. It’s not. It invites us to come aboard or play it safe – and why would we turn away when there’s a writer like Waters determining what (or whom) is coming next?
This isn’t the most accessible driveway into John Waters’ Dreamland – the uninitiated may fare better with Hairspray or Serial Mom, and then work their way back via Pink Flamingos – but it is the epitome of its auteur’s worldview. It’s a sequined sledgehammer to societal norms, and a poem to the oddballs that exist in ordinary places. Inspiringly weird and weirdly inspiring.
Extras include a very fine video essay by film scholar Gary Needham, who helps put the film in its socio-historical context (“Shattering norms requires intellect and atrocity”); a 2016 commentary from Waters; recent cast interviews; and the trailer.
Multiple Maniacs is out on Blu-ray from Criterion on 20th March 2017.