THE BOOTLEG FILES: “MULTIPLE MANIACS”

BOOTLEG FILES 133 “Multiple Maniacs” (1970 John Waters anarchy).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In 1994, but out of print for years.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Problems with music rights clearance.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Supposed in a couple of years.

“Multiple Maniacs” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect film. But when the film clicks, it ranks among the funniest things ever put on the screen. While John Waters addicts may feel that “Pink Flamingos” or “Female Trouble” were his personal bests (even Waters called this film his “atrocity”), I would state “Multiple Maniacs” represents a milestone in both Waters’ canon and in the realm of underground cinema.

If you never saw “Multiple Maniacs,” you don’t know what you are missing. The film is a monument to bad taste, but the bad taste is presented with such original wit that it impossible to imagine how audiences in 1970 reacted when they were confronted with this for the first time.

“Multiple Maniacs” centers on a traveling entertainment called Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions. The show attracts quotidian suburbanites who pay to gawk at a collection of people engaging in outrageous behavior – or at least outrageous for the time. There is a gay couple doing lip action (“Two actual queers kissing each other like lovers on the lips!”), a pornographer/photographer aiming his camera as “his slut of a girlfriend exposes her sacred reproductive organs” and the Puke-Eater (no need to describe his act). The ringmaster here is Mr. David, the boyfriend of Lady Divine. However, this is no lady – she is a psychotic criminal mastermind who uses the Cavalcade of Perversions to rob and kill the unsuspecting patrons.

Mr. David is under Lady Divine’s power because she’s tricked him into thinking he was responsible for the Manson murders (“He did something to the most beautiful girl in Hollywood!”). But he is beginning to crack at her control and he furtively engages in affairs behind her back. Lady Divine finds out about his philandering and sets off to fix his wagon, but as she walks through town to locate him she is assaulted and raped by two weirdos on the street.

After regaining her senses, she has a religious epiphany when the Infant of Prague arrives and leads her to a church. As she is engaged in prayer, she finds herself being eyed by another practitioner – a strange little woman named Mink. In the church, while recalling the Stations of the Cross, Mink begins to have her way with Lady Divine by giving her a “rosary job.” If you have to ask what a “rosary job” is, don’t – this is something you have to see to believe.

By now, Lady Divine begins to spiral emotionally. Her new-found lesbianism fuels her to greater acts of violence – killing cops, Mr. David, even her not-so-innocent daughter Cookie (although, in fairness, that was an accident). But fate pays her back tenfold when she is attacked in her apartment by Lobstora, a 15-foot lobster with an insatiable sexual appetite (yes, this is the first filmed record of a crustacean raping a human). The deranged and humiliated Lady Divine runs amok in the streets and the National Guard is called in to put her out of her misery.

“Multiple Maniacs” was shot in 16mm black-and-white for $5,000. This was double the budget of Waters’ previous feature, “Mondo Trasho,” and “Multiple Maniacs” went that outdid that earlier effort by having a synchronized soundtrack.

The film also secured the essential Waters ensemble: Divine, naturally, as Lady Divine (made up to recall Joan Crawford circa 1948), David Lochary as the weak-willed Mr. David, Mink Stole as the lady with the rosary, Cookie Mueller as the doomed daughter, Mary Vivian Pearce as Mr. David’s secret lover, and Edith Massey doing double duty as a barmaid who informs Lady Divine of Mr. David’s infidelity and as the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary…Edith Massey? Yes, the church sequence includes a flashback to ancient Judea where Jesus is seen feeding the masses (with packaged white bread).

One reason why “Multiple Maniacs” is not among Waters’ favorites is the obvious fact of its erratic set-up. It is basically a hit-and-miss effort that occasionally forgets to be funny when it is being vulgar. When sequences don’t work, such as the street rape of Lady Divine and the Lobstora invasion, the film seems to deflate – the sequences dribble on too long and the punchline, quite frankly, isn’t that funny. Even the references to Sharon Tate and Charles Manson seem lame (I assume 1970 audiences didn’t laugh that much either).

But when it works…damn, it is intensively funny. Waters had the knack of taking the most inane notion and pushing it so hard that it literally creates a parallel universe. The Infant of Prague is my favorite: a tiny and clearly confused child dressed in elaborate robes and a crown inexplicably wanders on screen. Divine, suddenly showing a rare maternal quality lacking earlier in the movie, walks with the dazed boy across the street while the soundtrack fills with a lush, purple prose of Divine praising the miraculous arrival of this avatar of God’s love. Of course, this interlude goes off into the most astonishing blasphemy imaginable as Divine and Mink Stole take the rosary where rosaries were not meant to go. Yes, it is in terrible taste – and it is all terribly, terribly funny.

And, of course, there is the best death scene in a comedy film: Lady Divine, literally foaming at the mouth, is surrounded by the National Guard (who look suspiciously like hippie kids in ill-fitting Army-Navy store surplus uniforms). The National Guard open fire, bringing her down into a bloody wreck. And then the soundtrack swells with Kate Smith singing “God Bless America”!

But that musical moment is one of the reasons why “Multiple Maniacs” is stuck in bootleg land. Waters made use of several classical songs and instrumental pieces (including “Jailhouse Rock”), but the cost of clearing the rights for home entertainment purposes proved to be too expensive. “Multiple Maniacs” was released on home video in 1994 by a small label that went out of business, but there has never been a DVD release because of the music clearance problems. To date, it is the only Waters feature unavailable for DVD viewing.

In a recent interview with Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope Magazine, Waters stated he hoped to have the music rights issue cleared up in two years. Meanwhile, Waters fans have transferred the out-of-print home video to DVD and have taken to selling it for their own profit. These aren’t difficult to find, and somehow I suspect Lady Divine would approve of such miscreant behavior. Until such time that Waters can clear up the problems surrounding “Multiple Maniacs,” this is the only way you can enjoy that wonderfully warped classic.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on June 9, 2006 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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