Can a film really be so bad that it’s good? It’s an interesting question, because Multiple Maniacs could, on the surface, be described as awful. But is it intentionally so?
Made on a reported budget of $5,000 it seems badly acted, badly written, badly shot, and is so cheaply made that even the letraset and card opening credits have obvious marks and sellotaped over mistakes making the entire package almost offensively rough around the edges. But with the master of trash, the mischievously wry John Waters behind the lens, desperately wanting to offend and outrage the audience is kind of the point.
Despite being such a shambles on the surface, the movie is very entertaining. Hilarious in fact. It’s a comedy, and intentionally very funny. This is not a no-brainer movie. It’s not a movie that throughout the audience can feel smugly superior to its failure. There is nothing unintentional about the humour the audience will get from it. There is almost a childish glee with which it makes the audience laugh, even if it is with hand-over-agape-mouth and completely stunned. It is sick-joke shocking.
The acting style is, let’s say naive. Sure. Not great. At all. But there is a matter-of-factness to the performances which actually makes the film even funnier – a deliberate disconnect between the horror of what happens and how the audience might expect the characters to behave. This is a technique which as been repurposed and used to great effect recently in things like the Netflix series Santa Clarita Diet, and actually gives the film an extra bizarre edge.
Is it shocking? Yes. Certainly. As the events and horrors pile up, there is no weary relentlessness – the continuing disturbing events seem to be attempting to out-do each other. The horrors and jokey depravity are done with inventiveness and spiral to an inevitably bloody conclusion.
With some truly eye opening moments which still have the power to knock the viewer sideways with surprise, the sensibilities of the original audiences would have been utterly confounded by the film. What a conservative Christian American audience would have made of a movie centred around a travelling carnival of unpleasant and deliberately depraved acts boggles the mind.
On top of this the story contains murder, rape by crustacean, drug taking, and a lesbian sex scene on a pew in a church wherein a rosary is inserted. It is designed to shock. Utterly. But is peculiarly funny because of it.
A movie about a carnival led by a murderous, drug taking obese transgender woman who’ll leap into bed and kill at any moment may not have the power to outrage and upset as when it was first produced in 1970, with attitudes having broadly changed, but it remains the case that the casual violence is still surprising. And the scene featuring the giant lobster is as jaw-droppingly disturbing and odd as it ever was.
The film stars the gay drag act Divine as Lady Divine, the leader of a “Cavalcade of Perversion” – a travelling carnival of filth and perverted acts (things like a man who eats vomit), which murders and steals from its visitors. Lady Divine’s retinue of multiple maniacs includes her prostitute daughter, (Cookie Mueller) her lover (David Lochary) and the rest of the cavalcade. It is a tale of betrayal and love, outsiders, the drug dependent and the mentally unstable – those lost in Nixon’s America – those becoming maniacs, and those who already are maniacs.
The restoration of this long lost early work has been done with great care to preserve the cheapness but clean the print. It looks oddly great. The restoration even apes the bits-of-card-and-letraset-stuck-over-other-bits-of-card credits, albeit in a digitally recreated form.
When Waters originally made the film the blasphemy and shocking nature of the piece meant he feared it would get banned, so only showed it in private places (ironically his films often premiered and showed in churches so they wouldn’t get “busted”). It is still surprising (although contains nothing close to Divine’s famous consumption of a fresh dog turd that marked the key moment in Waters’ next film Pink Flamingos). Multiple Maniacs was completely built to shake up people sleepwalking through life with complacency at the state of things. In these dark days it’s a depressing realisation that that kind of attitude might still be required.
Multiple Maniacs is out in UK cinemas on the 17th February and is a curiosity that is worth a look.