January 8, 2023

John Waters on Making Multiple Maniacs

John Waters’ gloriously grotesque, unavailable-for-decades second feature comes to theaters at long last, replete with all manner of depravity, from robbery to murder to one of cinema’s most memorably blasphemous moments. Made on a shoestring budget in Baltimore, with Waters taking on nearly every technical task, this gleeful mockery of the peace-and-love ethos of its era features the Cavalcade of Perversion, a traveling show put on by a troupe of misfits whose shocking proclivities are topped only by those of their leader: the glammer-than-glam, larger-than life Divine, who’s out for blood after discovering her lover’s affair.

Starring Waters’ beloved regular cast, the Dreamlanders(including David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and Cookie Mueller), Multiple Maniacs is an anarchist masterwork from anartist who has doggedly tested the limits of taste for decades.

The following is excerpted from Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste by John Waters. © 1985 Running Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

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. Violence was this generation’s sacrilege, so I wanted to make a film that would glorify carnage and mayhem for laughs.

I’ve always referred to Multiple Maniacs as my “celluloid atrocity.” Even though it’s technically primitive and the actors sometimes forget their lines, it’s still my favorite of all my films. I like its meanness and harsh documentary look, and for the first time the actors could spew forth the endless pages of dialogue I had written—lip-synched, at least.

I had made a whole new group of friends who played an important part in the making of Multiple Maniacs. Vincent Peranio, an art school dropout, had taken over a huge slum and turned it into the Hollywood Bakery, an insanely decorated commune filled with renegade artists. Vince was a decorating wizard and could turn any hovel into a well-designed the theatrical vision. We hooked up immediately, and he went to work on building Lobstora. He also introduced me to some great star material—Susan Lowe and Edith Massey.

Susan Lowe was an incredible sleazy artist’s model who could out drink any sailor and loved to embarrass her fellow models at art school by loudly farting while posing. When the cops raided Susan’s apartment in a marijuana bust, they were so horrified to see her pet iguana eating cockroaches in the corner that they called the papers, and she got some great coverage. I couldn’t help but be impressed by her whorish style and knew she’d make a great addition to any film. I was, and still am, shocked by Susan Lowe. She hung out at Pete’s Hotel, a local waterfront bar that catered to the flotsam of the wino bum set. During the making of the film, Pete’s Hotel became our hangout too. Drinks were twenty-five cents, and it seemed any sort of behavior was acceptable. The barmaid was an incredibly friendly chatterbox named Edith Massey, and she mothered all the freaks and seemed happy that our disruptive drinking was driving out the usual bum customers, who never tipped. Edith agreed to play herself in the film and went on to become one of my most popular stars.

Since the cast was still nervous about getting busted, we filmed all of Multiple Maniacs on private property. Once again, the Dreamland lot (my parents’ front lawn) was utilized, and we set up the tents for the Cavalcade of Perversion. My parents’ neighbors strained through binoculars to see us film the different “acts”—a girl sniffing and licking a bicycle seat, a pornographer snapping the crotch of a drunken model, two actual “queers” kissing each other like lovers on the lips, and my favorite, the puke eater—a bushy haired young gentleman who spit creamed corn into a bucket and then gobbled it back up.

The murder and lobster-rape scenes were all done in my apartment, or Dreamland Studios. Divine really proved herself a trouper in the scene where she stabs her boyfriend, rips open his chest, and starts to eat his heart. She never even balked as she chewed the old cow’s heart that had gone rotten from being left out on set all day.

The biggest location problem was finding a church that would allow us to film the rosary job. A friend told me of a priest who might let us, since he had allowed various so-called subversive political groups to use the church’s facilities for meetings. I called him and asked if I could film, and he said yes without inquiring as to the content of the scene. Once we arrived at the church and set up the equipment, a radical friend kept him out of the way by engaging him in political discussion, and I got the simulated shot of Mink inserting a rosary into one of Divine’s “most private parts.” Just for added sacrilegious shock value, I added a shot of an actor shooting up on the altar and later spliced in shots of the cast doing mock stations of the cross, complete with a gory crucifixion.

Multiple Maniacs really helped me to flush Catholicism out of my system, but I don’t think you can ever really lose it completely. I even tried going to Communion with the cast, stoned out of my mind, in a real church on Easter Sunday. Mink wore her religious whore outfit from the film and clutched rosaries and beat her chest in loud prayer, as kids elbowed their parents and whispered, “Look! Mommy! Look at that lady!” As our motley group filed up to the Communion rail in our Easter worst, the entire congregation could see one actor’s ass, since he had a large hole ripped in the back of his pants. The priest’s face turned scarlet, but he had no choice but to pop the Communion wafer into our mouths as our turns came. Being Catholic always makes you more theatrical.