Divine Comedy

John Waters, Multiple Maniacs, 1970, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 96 minutes. Lady Divine and Mink (Divine and Mink Stole). Photo: Lawrence Irvine.


Welcome to the deranged world of John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs (1970): Drag terrorist Divine will be ravished by an enormous lobster and Cookie Mueller (downtown minx, belletrist, and Fassbinder’s disco-snow connection) will play her daughter, frolicking through the movie half-nude like a nymph on the run from the Factory. Out of his alter ego’s claws almost two decades later, Glenn Milstead (aka Divine) claimed that the Dreamlanders created their early “celluloid atrocities” with all the verve of Mickey Rooney, purring, “Let’s go down to the barn and put on a show.”

But the Mickster never costarred with the kids seen in Multiple Maniacs, an ensemble halfway between a vaudeville troupe and a band of anarchists who hymn the joys of huffing refrigerator coolant or “blastin’ pigs.” Confabbing with Artforum in 1982, Waters claimed the movie was “made to offend hippies.” Now that it’s returning to raise hell in this outrageously tasteful restoration by the Criterion Collection, his first talkie can be celebrated as a vital part of the mixed-media funhouse that is the Pope of Trash’s oeuvre. Cookie’s mother nicknamed him “Beelzebub,” and forty-seven years later, Multiple Maniacs remains one of his most devilish lessons on the joy of misfit camaraderie.

David Lochary channels Edward Van Sloan in the goose-pimple prologue to Frankenstein (1931)—“We warned you!”—with an opening burst of carnival barking: This production is no ordinary mutant. Waters stitches together rancid parts of monster movies, exploitation flicks (Divine chews on a cow’s heart, ecstatic), sacrilegious fantasy, and something resembling . . . realism. The plot is a scrapbook of deviant acts, from puke-eating to Divine’s bloodthirsty rampage through downtown Baltimore. The Wanda-ish verité of certain scenes only makes things more discombobulating. Diane Arbus would crack up at the Cavalcade of Perversions and, yup, there’s even a shout-out to the fairground where she shot Hermaphrodite and Dog in a Carnival Trailer, MD., 1971. That magical scene where Divine reimagines Christ’s bloody progress along the Stations of the Cross while getting a “rosary job” from Mink Stole (“It’s like fucking Jesus!”) proves Waters can match any European auteur for tableaux coupling the holy and profane—it could be a moment from Godard’s Hail Mary (1985)! He also pulls off the cunning perversions of good taste that remain his trademark, with Divine unveiled to the audience as an ample odalisque on a couch attended by stoned waifs. If you’re feeling fancy, tag this belief that being “bad” is good to Victorian psychiatry’s descriptions of homosexuality as “inversion”—or just note the impish gall required to cheer for that philosophy under Nixon.

When Multiple Maniacs was shot, Waters was a prodigious twenty-three-year-old scuzzball nuts about Jean Genet who depended on an audience of drug fiends, bikers, and gay weirdos. He spent a few days the summer before making a stoner romp called Dorothy the Kansas City Pothead (1968), two minutes of which survive, coated in a bong-hit haze. “Punk” was nothing but a slur and homosexuality was still a disease in the DSM-II. The Baltimore Board of Film Censors called Multiple Maniacs “pernicious,” which turned out to be totally apt. Few other filmmakers have infected the mainstream with the same beautiful wickedness as Waters: He was supposed to marry Johnny and Winona, and aimed a ray gun at a whole generation of queer children on The Simpsons (“zap!”), and Justin Bieber told him, “Your ’stache is the jam,” on TV. Waters’s past might seem far away, but Multiple Maniacs is also a snapshot of a moment when fabulous misfits were battling the state and political conventions were disintegrating— the contemporary pertinence doesn’t need to be stressed.

Time-warping to the horrors of the present, Waters’s characters couldn’t be “cured” by even the most extreme bout of conversion therapy. They revel in whatever makes them evil with a flair that’s at once heroic and heartwarming. LSD inspired the lobster attack, but the greatest high comes when Divine beholds herself in the mirror and snarls, “I love your sickness!” From Kiddie Flamingos (2015) to Mondo Trasho (1969) or Desperate Living (1977)—which, with its backwoods fairyland of Mortville could be retrospectively dubbed My Own Private Oz—Waters’s casts offer a queer vision of family life, where childhood’s innocent weirdness can be merrily explored. Sometimes the family in Multiple Maniacs seems to be playing dress-up in different dimensions: Mink Stole looks proto-goth; David Lochary still vibes like a homesick Martian mixed with Vincent Price, his unicorn’s tail coiffeur peroxided to the radiance of heat-wave sunshine; Edith Massey, that gap-toothed vixen, plays the Virgin Mary; and Divine is, as Waters crows in his commentary, “Godzilla!”

John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Charlie Fox is a writer based in London. His book of essays, This Young Monster, is out now from Fitzcarraldo Editions.