John Waters has been given a lot of nicknames over the years: The Prince of Puke. The King of Trash. The Anal Anarchist. He even acknowledged to The Guardian that he looks like “the child molester from central casting.” (At the very least, he stands out in a crowd.) To casual fans, Waters's filmography is defined by that 1972 opus of indecency, Pink Flamingos, a movie quite literally built around a competition to be the “filthiest person alive.”
But even before his principle early collaborator, the drag queen Divine, earned a place in the halls of film history by eating dog feces on-camera for Flamingos, there was Multiple Maniacs, which the director describes now as “trainer wheels for Pink Flamingos.” And for the first time since Waters distributed the movie himself 46 years ago, Maniacs will receive a true theatrical release thanks to Janus Films and the Criterion Collection.
Maniacs was Waters's first full-length talkie — Mondo Trasho, its predecessor, was more of a silent picture — and in the clip above you’ll see a 4K restoration of a movie that was shot for $5,000 around the director’s hometown. In the days before its August 5 limited release (national expansion will follow), Waters talked to Vulture about where his lost film has been hiding and how he got that “rosary job” past sensors back in 1970.
The Criterion Collection is a bit more reputable than the first distributors of Maniacs.
When Waters was unable to secure a traditional theatrical release for Maniacs back when he first produced it, he did the yeoman’s work of schlepping it around the country in the back of his car. At one point, the movie even got picked up by a small chain of cinema houses for a 20-city run. “There was one tour it went on with a place called the Art Theatre Guild, which was mostly porn theaters," Waters recalls. “But at midnight every week they had an underground film festival. On Saturday nights they played great stuff, and I got picked up.” Maniacs later got a modest release after the success of Pink Flamingos pushed the director into the mainstream consciousness, but since then it has just been kicking around in the director’s attic and on “dead VHSes” people forgot they had in the garage.
All Waters had available was the most skeleton of crews.
When you watch Multiple Maniacs, it quickly becomes clear that this was a guerilla-style operation. Waters wrote, directed, edited, produced, and shot the movie himself with a massive Arcon 0627 mounted on his shoulders, and the on-set crew consisted of him and a single teamster that he met through his film lab in Baltimore. “I don't know if it was legal or not, but I paid a fee. And he was a big help. A big help, really,” says Waters. “He was probably appalled by the movie. I look back and wonder, What was he thinking then? Because nobody said we were good or anything. And we had been arrested the year before for making Mondo Trasho. But he hardly was a hippie. He was the opposite.” The scene above, in which we see a nude Divine about to take the stage for a show called The Cavalcade of Perversions, was shot on the lawn of Waters’s parents’ home.
Waters was pioneering atrocities right from the start.
In the director’s early days, before audiences knew to expect the unexpected and borderline unimaginable, Waters’s calling card was inventing new ways to appall viewers. Along with his stable of frequent collaborators called the Dreamlanders, he spent the Vietnam era terrorizing polite society with on-screen acts of cannibalism, incest, killing of live animals, and, yes, fecal consumption. Mondo Trasho opens with live chickens being beheaded by a man dressed as an executioner, and closes with a doctor sawing off a woman’s feet to replace them with those belonging to some sort of avian monster. In Flamingos — the crowning achievement in Waters’s “Trash Trilogy” — Edith Massey plays a developmentally disabled woman who lives in a crib and is obsessed with hard-boiled eggs, and that’s really the least shocking thing going on in the movie.
For Maniacs, Waters says that when the movie went before the sensor board nearly 50 years ago, “The woman cried when she saw it, and she sent it to the judge. He said, ‘My eyes were insulted for 90 minutes, but it’s not illegal,’ which was the whole point of the movie! To make something that wasn't illegal yet.” So when you see Divine on all fours in a church pew being anally penetrated with a rosary by a mysterious individual who is reciting the Stations of the Cross, that was probably possible because sensors didn’t even have the language to ban a “rosary job” at the time.
Maybe don't consider the lobster.
In a pivotal scene for Divine’s character in Maniacs, she experiences an awakening after being raped by a lobster the size of a small car. This may seem random to some viewers, but not to Waters: “It made perfect sense that if you’re insane, you hallucinate, you imagine things,” explains the director. “In surrealism and many ways from Salvador Dalí to Jack Smith — I mean, really, lobsters are surreal in themselves, so it didn't seem that surprising to me that suddenly in the middle of the movie a lobster would rape somebody.”
Or it could have been the drugs. “I took a lotta LSD back then,” adds Waters. “So that was normal for us.”