Early John Waters freakout
Loves: The Criterion Collection, John Waters
Likes: Cult films
Dislikes: Aggressive outcasts
Hates: Extreme for extreme's sake
That niche audience is likely to welcome John Waters' Multiple Maniacs with open arms, but it could certainly be argued that, between Armageddon, The Rock and Waters' 1970 ode to outcasts, that the Divine vehicle comes in dead last. It's not particularly well-made (certainly not in Waters' top five films) and the acting and writing would often be considered sub-par for community theater. But here it is, getting a release as part of the Criterion Collection. If the reason why is that they couldn't license any other film by Waters but wanted him in the collection, then fine. That's a decent argument for including what passes for a half-decent college film. But to argue that Multiple Maniacs is Criterion-worthy on its own merits is a losing battle.
Shot in harsh black and white on next to no budget by Waters and his merry band of misfits, the film exists mainly to push boundaries. Devine (Devine) is the ringleader of a group of miscreants who lure strait-laced suburbanites into their carnival of depravity (featuring acts like a bicycle-seat licker, a puke eater, and "two actual queers kissing like lovers on the mouth") in order to rob, drug and murder them. The crew, which includes barker Mr. David (David Lochary), Devine's lazy daughter Cookie (Cookie Mueller) and a few other hot messes, are about as far from heroes as you can get, and with such an aggressively awful group, it's not long before they turn on each other, which sets up a tale of dishonesty and double-crossing carnality, leading to a finale of pure madness. the likes of which Waters pioneered.
That's not to say there's not good to be found in Waters' early madness. There's no arguing that Divine isn't fully devoted to his role, serving up a diva-worthy performance that makes it easy to understand why his criminal cult would follow him, while Lochary is a great analog for Waters, and the director's troupe is enjoyable playing against type as the straights.. There's an artistry to the way Waters contrasts the sacred and the profane at several points, not to mention his ability to cultivate a fascinating cast of characters who are interesting without saying much of anything. Plus, the music, recreated by composer George S. Clinton, is a perfect fit for the time and the tone, with a catchy collection of twangy guitar rock. But there are a few embarrassing performances sprinkled throughout (complete with flubbed lines) and the production falls several rungs short of polished, serving as an origin story for the filmmaker who would one day bring us classics like Polyester and Serial Mom.
For all the issues that are rooted in the film being the product of an inexperienced group of outsiders, the big problem here is the presence of bits that were included solely for shock value (an unfortunately large portion of the movie.) For instance, there's a scene which shows a man actually injecting heroin. It adds zero to the film's plot, is completely disconnected to what happens before and after it and is pretty boring for something that offers nothing more than a taboo subject. It's not the film's fault that it's impossible to watch Multiple Maniacs with the same mindset of the audience that saw it when it was first released, but the reality is changing times aren't kind to material desperate to offend and shake up the norms.
Similar to the image, the sound wasn't exactly top-notch to begin with, but the LPCM 1.0 track ensures that the voices are as understandable as the original recording would allow. The real star on the sound side is Clinton's fantastic interpretation of the score, which is strong, yet appropriate. No complaints here, mainly because there wasn't a lot to work with in this arena.
Though I said the extras make up for the film, it is an admittedly small group of bonus content, with Waters' commentary joined by a 32:26 collection of interviews, a 10:40 video essay and Janus' trailer for their restored re-release of the film. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, mainly on the back of the interviews, recorded in Baltimore in 2016 with Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and George Figgs. As you would expect of Waters' contemporaries, they have great personalities and great stories, sharing their perspectives on the production, how they meet Waters and what he's like as a director. Waters' fans should enjoy these clips greatly.
The video essay, "Stations of Filth", presented by film scholar Gary Needham (in his heavy Scottish accent), takes an academic angle on the film, placing the film in the context of its times, exploring Waters' style and tendencies and even attempts to explains a perplexing crustacean appearance.
Besides the re-release trailer, the disc wraps with a 12-panel fold-out, holding details on the film and disc, as well as an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky. It's too bad that we couldn't get one or more of Waters' early shorts here, to round out this look at his filmmaking beginnings.
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