The Pope of Trash, John Waters, on his rarely-seen sleaze epic Multiple Maniacs

Divine has a lobster intervention

Divine has a lobster intervention

Directed by John Waters
USA 1970 82 min 18

RATING: ★★★★☆

The BFI John Waters season continues into October, see here for details.


The filmmaker hailed (and slated) as the “Pope of Trash, the Prince of Puke or Baltimore’s favourite son”, the one and only John Waters, is currently being celebrated by the BFI with a season devoted to his films. But programmed alongside his more ‘“family friendly” fare such as Cry-Baby (which star Johnny Depp credits with launching his career) and the beloved rom-com musical Hairspray (incredibly, a PG-rated Waters film) , are some of the rawer, meaner and lesser-known films that Waters cobbled together with various crowds of freaks and underdogs - his favoured types of collaborators.

It is in this category that Multiple Maniacs falls. Completed in 1970, the film is not currently in distribution on home video, putting BFI audiences who caught the battered 35mm print of the film this month in a lucky position. The film has a ramshackle feel to it, this is real low-budget,“grab anyone you can and shoot on the run”, filmmaking. It also is a showcase for many of Waters’ collaborators - called “The Dreamlanders’”- with whom he made several low budget, made-to-offend, trash films. Chief amongst these partners in crime was the one and only Divine, the American actor, singer and drag queen who takes the central role in Multiple Maniacs and acts as a form of nitrous oxide injection into the entire film. Before this film Divine and Waters had collaborated on his taste-free satirical short The Diane Linkletter Story, incredibly made just a day after the US talk show host's daughter had killed herself by jumping from a window whilst allegedly high on LSD.

Divine is a misanthropic force of nature, totally unique, a foul-mouthed, swaggering dynamo of destruction. In Multiple Maniacs Divine is one Lady Divine, the mistress of the sleaziest show on Earth - “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions” - a travelling freakshow currently set down in Baltimore, drawing in crowds of middle America conservative types who just cant resist peeking inside at the delights, which includes the act known as ‘the puke eater” . But the big top is also a front for Divine’s group of unruly criminals who beat up and rob the ticket payers, even killing them. But Lady Divine’s crazed ambitions and trigger-finger are growing too much for her beaten-down lover Mr David, who has been cavorting with his none-too-bright lover Bonnie, and plans to murder her. 

The film emerged from Waters already-established desire to make the most offensive films he could think of, whilst also reflecting his bafflement at the 1960s hippy free-love moment. Waters has said he felt like a fish out of water at the time, fantasising about the beginning of ‘the hate generation”. He wanted to make a film that would glorify carnage and mayhem for laughs. No sitting around in a muddy field and smoking grass whilst wearing hula necklaces for him. And so Multiple Maniacs instead incorporates not only the sleazy antics of Divine and a plot featuring murder, thievery and vomit, but even incorporates aspect of the real life Sharon Tate murders (unsolved at the time of shooting). This is John Water’s 1960s; in his own words; “We wanted to scare the world.”

Multiple Maniacs starts with freakshows, murder and robbery, and by the end has run the gamut from Lady Divine masturbating using a rosary while in church (known as a ‘rosary job’), killing her boyfriend and eating his heart ( in actuality a rotten cow’s heart left out on the set all day) and being raped by a giant lobster named Lobstora. Not surprisingly, the end result of all this dementedness is to drive Lady Divine to go on a killing spree in Fell's Point before being shot down by the National Guard, Godzilla style. The acting is as crude as the camera and sound work, but when the cast are spouting endless pages of filthily hilarious dialogue Waters had written for them, it fits perfectly. John Waters himself referred to all the resulting mayhem as a ‘celluloid atrocity’ which helped him flush Catholicism out of his system once and for all, and that is precisely why it is incredibly fun and totally unmissable. If you ever come across an opportunity to see it, take it.

John Waters on Multiple Maniacs (which he refers to as his “first sickie film”):

On the production of the film.

Well the Cavalcade of Perversion was shot on the front lawn of my parents house. What were they thinking to let us do that?  Lady Divine’s apartment in the film was my actual apartment; you can still see some of the posters on the wall in Pink Flamingoes 20 years later, I still had them hanging. 

The film was made at the heigh of the hippy love generation, and it was about us being the mass murderers! In the middle of making this movie, the Sharon Tate murders happened, and they hadn't caught Manson. We claimed that we did it! What was I thinking? This was a movie made to offend hippies and scare them. We were hippies too, sort of,  but the hippies wanted to be scared, that was the thing. This was a movie made to glorify violence-the one thing you could never do then.

On setting out to offend:

The movie has the most sacrilegious thing ever in a movie; a rosary job.I don't know if you’ve ever had one. Maybe you’ll want one after this!

It wasn't hard to do the Cavalcade, it was pretty normal stuff, you know, bra sniffing and such.  It was fun to do it, though the thing I always remember is we had a hamburger vendor there selling burgers for a dollar, and that was supposed to be so expensive! In the film the Calvacade is being shown to what we called “straight people”, what “straight” meant back then was not “gay” but it meant you didn't take drugs. I look back on it and I just think, “ah, youth”.

On the ‘crustacean intervention’ at the end of the film:

That came from Provincetown, there was always this beach postcard where there was this lobster flying in the sky; everyone back then ate lobster dinners. We took a lot of acid back then, so there I was imagining this lobster coming down and raping tourists. Vincent Perrenio, who went on to do the production design of all my films, this was the first thing he ever did for me. You can see his legs sticking out of his lobster outfit, he and his brother under there, having sex with Divine!

The BFI John Waters season continues into October.


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Owen Van Spall

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