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D: John Waters / 96m

Cast: Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey, Rick Morrow, Howard Gruber, Paul Swift, Susan Lowe, George Figgs

Some movies that garner a reputation for being “obscene” or “perverted” upon release generally don’t have a long shelf life, and soon fade not into obscurity exactly, but rely on gaining a cult following to ensure they’re still watched and talked about. And any such movie certainly won’t expect to be critically lauded, or attain cult status amongst those who’ve seen it unless it has something that no one other movie can offer, and John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs has that something: the amazing, human tornado of strident perversion called Divine.

Waters’ early work – this is his second feature – is synonymous with the rise of Harris Glenn Milstead as the merciless, murderous-minded, savagely anti-establishment grotesquerie known as Divine. This is a movie that puts itself out there as being counter-culture entertainment, a bargain basement, shot-on-16mm trash bag of arch religious references, austere social commentary, and documentary-like footage. It doesn’t look or feel like a standard issue movie because Waters has deliberately chosen to shoot it in such a diffuse, non-professional way that it often looks like a collection of outtakes strung together for convenience rather than a truly finished product where everything was shot as planned and nobody forgot their lines in the middle of a scene (which happens here a lot). There’s also a lot of guerrilla moviemaking, as outdoor scene after outdoor scene reveals a member of the public looking on in confusion and/or horror at what they’re witnessing (Divine in various states of undress and challenging middle class perceptions of good taste).

Beneath all the amateur hour shenanigans and louche bravado of its characters though, Waters’ ode to unrestrained perversion is touchingly conservative in its approach, and nowhere near as bizarre as it wants you to believe. Part of the appeal of Waters’ movies in the early Seventies is their deliberate inversion of public, social and moral standards, and the ways in which Waters’ gleefully attempted to subvert the cultural values of the time. Waters was only twenty-four when he made Multiple Maniacs, but it feels like a movie made by a rebellious teenager taking pot shots at his parents (the religious elements) and the passive determinism of the denizens of his home town of Baltimore. It’s no wonder Waters wants to shake things up and challenge the status quo; he’s a young man still working out his issues from growing up.

In Multiple Maniacs, this kind of celluloid psychotherapy finds its best and truest expression in the form of Lady Divine (Divine, naturally) and her Cavalcade of Perversion, the travelling freak show she fronts as a way of making money (by robbing the poor fools who are persuaded to see the show), and espousing her contempt for society. Lady Divine surrounds herself with “assorted sluts, fags, dykes and pimps” because they share her disdain for more traditional adult roles. They’re the protesters and the dissenters, acolytes who share her (and Waters’) disapproval at the way society treats the disenfranchised and the socially excluded. Lady Divine would kill them all if she could, but Waters’ Catholic upbringing precludes such extreme measures, and though his transgressive alter ego does kill on a handful of occasions, and even feasts on the entrails of one of her victims, when she’s finally consumed by a murderous mania, the most violent act she commits is to take a sledgehammer to a car.

The movie’s more violent excesses are leavened by unintentional moments of levity, such as when Lady Divine attempts to stab her new friend, the Religious Whore (Stole), and begins her attack by stabbing the air above the character’s head, an obvious concession to the fact that Divine is wielding a real knife and doesn’t want to hurt his co-star. And towards the end, when Lady Divine is chasing dozens of people through the streets of Baltimore, her terrifying creature moment is undermined by the number of faces that are displaying laughter instead of terror. But through it all, Waters makes no apologies for the excesses he portrays, and he burns any religious bridges he may have had access to by juxtaposing Christ and the Stations of the Cross with Lady Divine being anally pleasured by a rosary-wielding Mink Stole. It’s profane and it’s crass but it’s still just Waters railing against the formalities and restrictions imposed by organised religion.

When Waters isn’t expressing his dissatisfaction with contemporary morality, he’s holding up a mirror to contemporary issues as well, with mentions of the murder of Sharon Tate – Lady Divine tortures her boyfriend, Mr David (the splendid David Lochary), with the possibility he was involved in her murder – and various references to the war in Vietnam. And he’s surprisingly waspish when it comes to notions of the nuclear family, with Lady Divine doting on her somewhat promiscuous daughter, Cookie (Mueller), while submitting to the attentions of glue-sniffing rapists, Miss Stole and her beads, and a giant lobster (Lobstora) that appears out of nowhere and sets her on the road to sexually-induced hysterical violence. And the idea that Mr David could be seeing another woman, Bonnie (Pearce), whips her into a hypocritical frenzy (and allows Waters’ favourite Edith Massey to provide her first mangled performance in one of his movies).

The dialogue is suitably terse and aggressive, as befits a group of characters who are angry at themselves and the wider world, and though the performances are what you’d have to charitably regard as “authentically naïve”, there’s a rude energy to it all that more than makes up for the deficiencies of shooting on such a low budget. Waters opts for some uncomfortable close ups to highlight the pains and suffering felt by his characters, and doesn’t always worry if those images are distorted or out of focus (one gets the feeling a lot of scenes and shots were the first, and only, take). This adds to the documentary tone the movie adopts and exploits from time to time, and shows that Waters was very much aware of the concept of cinema verité when he was putting his movie together. All of which makes Multiple Maniacs a more heartfelt and poignant movie than may be expected, and shows that, despite all the attempts at shocking its audience, the movie is as much an ode to treating people of all walks of life fairly as it is about exposing the social injustices that stop this from happening. This leaves John Waters looking very much like a social reformer – and who would have thought that?

Rating: 8/10 – a trial by fire for anyone unfamiliar with Waters’ early work, Multiple Maniacs nevertheless works on many levels and is unremittingly earnest in its exposure of small-minded hypocrisy amongst middle-class America and its apologists; for all the sturm und drang on display though, it’s a tract that preaches acceptance but only insofar as you conform to the way society expects you to behave – and if you don’t, then society will call out the National Guard. (3/31)