You have never, and I mean never, seen any movie remotely like Multiple Maniacs.

LA Free Press

During the late sixties I felt like a fish out of water. As the rest of my generation babbled about peace and love, I stood back, puzzled, and fantasized about the beginning of the “hate generation.” Woodstock was the last straw. Sitting in the mud with a bunch of naked hippies and their illegitimate children and listening to Joan Baez was hardly my idea of a good time.

John Waters: Shock Value (1981)

Multiple Maniacs

A couple of years ago, I got my hands on a copy of John Waters’ second feature length film on blu-ray. Released by Criterion, it was pricey but a great package – even though the music originally utilised by Waters had disappeared, due to copyright issues. The release boasted an impressive set of extras, including new interviews with Waters regulars like Mink Stole and George Figgs; a video essay by Gary Needham and a booklet with liner notes by Linda Yablonsky. Best of all was a new audio commentary featuring Waters.

The strange thing is I think I preferred this to watching the film ‘straight’.
Waters is clever and funny, a natural raconteur with a genuine subversive streak. Interviews with modern directors can often bore me rigid, as they constantly try to be complimentary about their cast and crew and desperately attempt not offend anyone who might just possibly stump up some cash and pay to see their films, but Waters is always a delight to listen to, even when I disagree with what he’s saying.

As a young director, he embraced bad taste and embarked on a mission to wind up absolutely everybody from conservatives to leftists and liberals and everyone in between. Most of his ire in Multiple Maniacs, though, is directed against Catholicism, the religion he was indoctrinated in to as a child but I’m sure other branches of Christianity might find themselves similarly infuriated if they bothered to watch.

Waters made the movie on a laughably low budget in his beloved Baltimore. As in all his early work, he adopted guerilla filmmaking techniques before that phrase was in common use and drafted in his Dreamlander regulars such as Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey and of course Divine, who is in his fat Elizabeth Taylor phase here.

Divine looking into mirror

In Multiple Maniacs, a master of ceremonies known as Mr David (David Lochary), lures in suburban passers-by by promising they will see all manner of depravities should they enter ‘the sleaziest show on earth’ – Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions.

Mr. David’s warning that the show is full of ‘acts that would make any decent person recoil in disgust’ is no idle patter. There is a woman seemingly sexually attracted to a bicycle saddle, a man who eats his own vomit and a drug addict going through cold turkey.

The audience are dully disgusted, but they’re about to experience something far worse. Lady Divine is about to reveal the true purpose of the cavalcade. The whole travelling freakshow is a subterfuge, as onlookers at points across the country are only invited in so they can to be robbed – and murdered if they fail to co-operate.

Now, if you spend a moment analysing this, you will conclude that while this ruse might work once, the fact is that the police would interview witnesses afterwards, making it easy for them to track down the uber-eccentric misfits that comprise the crime gang, a true band of outsiders if ever there was one. Let’s face it, in the early 1970s, a grossly overweight transvestite would hardly be the most difficult suspect to track down.


Safe to say that realism is not the aim of Waters. Fun and shock are.

Lady Divine is Mr David’s girlfriend but Mr David – and he is only ever referred to this way – is tiring of Lady Divine’s out of control killing sprees. What’s almost as bad is that she also rejects the idea of letting ‘copraphrasiac and a gerontophiliac’ Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pierce) join the show.

Unknown to Lady Divine, Bonnie is Mr David’s secret girlfriend, and in the aftermath of her rejection, the pair hatch a plot to murder the serial murderess.

David Lochary in Multiple Maniacs

She is meanwhile getting fed up with Mr David and his attitude. When she receives a phone call from a blabbermouth bar worker (Edith Massey), she explodes in anger and heads out with payback on her mind.

Raging, she meets up with two glue sniffing men, one with a beard who wears a dress. They rape her.

Miraculously, Lady Divine then encounters a biblical figure, the Infant of Prague, who leads her to a nearby church. As she contemplates recent events, a young lesbian (Mink Stole) approaches her. She tells Lady Divine that she is known as the Religious Whore and seduces her, finding a use for a set of a rosary beads that the Catholic Church is never going to endorse.

Paul Swift, the actor who earlier portrayed the drug addict reappears, this time playing Jesus. This is followed by some graphic cannibalism.

And then things get really outrageous!


On the Trashometer, Multiple Maniacs is undoubtedly a ten but as a film it wouldn’t merit top marks.

The acting? It’s like a bunch of LSD casualties had taken over an am-dram group. The movie goes on too long and a middle section where Lady Divine imagines her version of the Stations of the Cross, it would have to be said, is frankly a drag.

Sometimes it just tries too hard to offend – such as the mentions of the Manson murders. It was shot before those awful events had led to any arrests and it’s occasionally hinted that one cavalcade member was heavily involved.

It isn’t nearly as good as many of his later works like Polyester, Hairspray, and Cry-Baby. Watching this in the 1970s, few would have predicted that Waters would go on to enjoy anything resembling the mainstream success that he managed later in his career with that trio of movies.

On the plus side, Multiple Maniacs is certainly original, and only one man could possibly have made it. As that quote at the top of the post says, if you haven’t already seen it, then you will never have seen any movie remotely like Multiple Maniacs.

Unless that is, you’ve already seen his follow up, Pink Flamingos, but that is maybe for another time.