Ask any John Waters fan what the Baltimore director’s filthiest, most shocking movie is and chances are good they’ll say Pink Flamingos, his 1972 black comedy that put him and his feces-eating leading lady Divine on the indie filmmaking map. But if that deliciously disgusting slice of low-budget Americana represents the gleefully outrageous auteur working at the height of his eccentricities, Multiple Maniacs, filmed two years earlier, was the first real glimpse of his horrific and hilarious talent.
It’s probably a good thing that Multiple Maniacs was filmed in black-and-white, since the stark monochromatic look takes the edge off the seedy adventures of Lady Divine, the dangerously high-strung owner of a roving band of miscreants known as the Cavalcade of Perversions–but only just barely. Water’s obsession with smashing taboos and societal norms drives the gonzo opening sequence that follows a group of ordinary people tricked into attending the freak sideshow to end all sideshows before being tied up, robbed, and threatened by the merry band of pranksters. You know the crazed sex addicts from A Dirty Shame? Take them, add a healthy dose of kink and violence and you’d be still be miles away from the petty Perversions crew.
The film’s plot–Lady Divine suspects her partner Mr. David (David Lochary) of cheating on her and hunts him down with the help of a local barmaid (Edith Massey) before–is almost comically besides the point, serving mainly as a vehicle for increasingly outrageous set pieces that showcase Divine in all her rage-fueled, over-the-top glory. If her sexual assault on a sidewalk by two glue-sniffing vagrants wasn’t depraved enough, Waters smashes his way into cinema infamy by intercutting a re-enactment of the Stations of the Cross with a drawn-out scene of Mink Stole sodomizing Divine on a church pew with rosary beads. Really. The solemn reverence with which Waters juxtaposes the last moments of Christ’s life with Divine’s lesbianic epiphany is truly one of the most wickedly funny moments ever committed to celluloid.
Divine’s volcanic eruptions at Mr. David’s continued infidelity are almost operatic, turning even the most repetitive and banal bits of dialogue into free-flowing poems of crude epithets and violent threats. It’s no wonder that the press started taking notice of Waters and his Dreamlanders after the release of Multiple Maniacs–her magnetic and malevolent presence is what holds this rickety contraption together. Whether she’s hanging out with her topless daughter or rampaging through downtown suburbia with a ragtag Army squad hot on her heels, Divine is a defiant force of nature and Waters’ greatest gift to cinema.
Some directors take a few films to find their footing, experimenting with different styles and tones until unlocking the right combination of attitude, vision, and confidence. Looking back, it’s clear that everything that makes John Waters such a singular talent was there right from the beginning. The utter adoration of society’s misfits, rebels, and agent provocateurs? Check. Loving nods to ‘50s pop culture and Hollywood? Check. A blazing DIY aesthetic that includes a life-size lobster engaging in the strangest rape scene outside of Japanese hentai? Check. Multiple Maniacs charms as much as it offends and for a John Waters film, there’s no higher praise.