There’s something faintly perverse about the idea of John Waters’ early work being painstakingly restored, especially by the highbrow gatekeepers at Janus Films/Criterion. Audiences originally saw these films in cruddy conditions, on the underground/midnight circuit, and that continued to be the case for decades afterward. Even in the ’90s, seeing Multiple Maniacs (1970)—Waters’ second feature, following the nearly dialogue-free Mondo Trasho—often involved an ancient, beat-up 16mm print projected on a basement wall, which felt absolutely right. Transgression is at the heart of Waters’ ethos; his earliest films, in particular, derive much of their power from the feeling that you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to, as if the movie had somehow escaped keepers who had been entrusted with preventing it from contaminating impressionable minds. All the same, so few people have seen Maniacs (which was only ever issued on VHS) that its theatrical rerelease, while inappropriately respectable, is still a welcome sight.
Shot in low-contrast, frequently grainy black-and-white—Waters approvingly notes that the restoration retroactively makes it look like “a bad John Cassavetes film” (and it really does!)—Multiple Maniacs opens with what amounts to a statement of purpose, as a carnival barker, Mr. David (David Lochary), attracts customers to Lady Divine’s Cavalcade Of Perversion. Curious passersby who take in the free show (or freak show) are “treated” to such attractions as puke-eating, armpit-licking, and a demonstration of severe drug withdrawal symptoms, though it’s all just an excuse to herd customers into a tent, where Lady Divine (drag queen Divine, Waters’ longtime muse) can rob them. The movie’s minimal subsequent narrative involves Lady Divine growing increasingly demented, choosing to murder her victims as well, while Mr. David, her semi-estranged lover, teams up with a peroxide blond (Mary Vivian Pearce) in a plot to kill Lady Divine so they can be together. Characters on the margins include Lady Divine’s daughter, Cookie (Cookie Mueller), a prostitute who spends most of the film topless, and a self-described “religious whore,” Mink Stole (Mink Stole), who sticks a rosary up Lady Divine’s ass in a sex scene shot in a church.