You won’t believe this one!
I joked when Criterion released Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild that it was their way to sneak John Waters into the collection in the era of Blu-ray and DVD (after releasing Pink Flamingos and Polyester on laserdisc). When Waters again appeared in the collection by offering a commentary on Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, fans began to hope that he would formally join the collection in the near future. That time has arrived, and Criterion has released the director’s second feature, Multiple Maniacs. Long overshadowed as a dress-rehearsal for the more famous Pink Flamingos, Multiple Maniacs gets its own time to shine thanks to this amazing restoration.
Lady Divine (Waters regular Divine) runs The Cavalcade of Perversions, a kind of sideshow composed of freaks. When Lady Divine tires of merely robbing her patrons at the end of each show, she decides to murder them instead. This sets her on a wild ride of death and depravity.
Graham Greene’s 1925 short story “The Destructors” has become a classic, in part because it seems to argue that the energy that drives creation might just as easily drive destruction. And in that way, destruction can become a kind of creative act (which is what a student argues about the story in Donnie Darko). There’s very little of Graham Green’s cool classicism in John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs. There is, however, the same question lurking behind it – what to do with the impulse to tear things down, and how art might be related to that impulse.
Multiple Maniacs is startling 40 years later because it still seems to have been made by a group of people who should not have survived the making of the film, let alone go on to lead full and productive lives (even Divine, who died too early at 42, made it 18 years after the release of this film). John Waters and his troupe of Baltimore denizens really did have an anarchic, burn-it-down spirit that drives the largely-episodic plot.
And those episodes tend to be doozies. There is, of course Lady Divine’s tent-show act. There’s the infamous (sex) scene in the church. There’s rape and murder, but neither particularly drives the plot. Instead, the film takes a King Kong approach to the larger-than-life Divine, who by the end has become too big for the film to contain.
What distinguishes Multiple Maniacs from other 70s-era exercises in nihilism and destruction is the giggly, giddy way that John Waters and company go about their business. Camp is a largely-misunderstood and overused term, but it generally signals a kind of mis-match between text and intent, and that’s showcased in Multiple Maniacs. There’s always a distance between what’s happening (a rape, for instance) and how we and the characters are supposed to feel about it (we’re not laughing, precisely, but we’re not supposed to take it as seriously as it would play in Bergman’s Virgin Spring, for instance). Just as importantly, style is primary for Waters and his players. Divine and the rest of the cast do everything they can with the maximum amount of personal flair. Though it’s hard to admire anything they do, it’s surprisingly easy to admire the way in which they do everything.
Criterion have long been admirers of John Waters and his work, and this Blu-ray showcases that mutual admiration. Things start with a newly-restored 16mm negative. Despite the fact that the film was stored in call kinds of terrible places (hot attics being the worst), it looks frankly stunning in this 1.66:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. The black and white image is largely free from damage, and the in-focus moments are crisp and clean. Grain has a naturally heavy look, resolving into detail where appropriate. Blacks are deep and consistent, with solid contrast. Don’t expect the film to look great, however. The film was shot catch-as-catch-can, with lots of long takes without inserts. Focus was not always the highest priority while filming, so there are definitely some out-of-focus scenes and some fuzzy visuals. These, however, are a product of the film and not the transfer. This is likely the best the film has ever looked, period (unless, of course, you saw a 4K projection of the restoration while it was in theaters). Audio is a workmanlike 1.0 mono LPCM soundtrack. Dialogue is always pretty clean and clear, but background noise is an issue. There’s some distortion present as well, and there’s a flatness to the overall presentation that suggests the limitations of budget. It’s a totally listenable soundtrack, but it doesn’t have the “pow” of the visual restoration.
Extras start with a commentary by John Waters (where we learn, sadly, that his first film Mondo Trasho won’t be making a home video appearance ever if he can help it). Waters is chatty and informative, showcasing info on the film’s influences, production, and after life. As the centerpiece of the extras it’s a solid addition. Most of the Dreamlanders show up for interviews, reminiscing about the film. There’s also an 11 minute video essay on the film called “Stations of Filth.” The film’s trailer is also included. The usual Criterion booklet features an essay by Linda Yablonsky on the film and its afterlife.
No one is going to argue that Multiple Maniacs is John Waters’ best film (for my money, that’s Cecil B. Demented). Ideally, most viewers would see one of his later films, like Cry Baby, Hair Spray, Serial Mom or Cecil and work their way backwards until they found a film they couldn’t stomach. For most viewers that tipping point will likely be the end of Pink Flamingos. If that infamous ending left you wanting more, then Multiple Maniacs is the film for you. For everyone else, the film’s gross, blasphemous weirdness is probably best left alone.
John Waters’ subversive streak would become more subtle as his career progressed, and he’s produced more shocking material (especially Pink Flamingos), but it’s hard not to admire the brazen energy of Multiple Maniacs. It’s not a “good” film in any traditional sense, but fans of John Waters early work will appreciate the template it sets for Pink Flamingos.