The 1970 film is returning to theaters Friday

By Joe McGovern
August 05, 2016 at 10:52 PM EDT
Steve Zak Photography/FilmMagic

There is a ludicrous, trashy film opening in theaters this weekend about demented supervillains — and we’re not talking about Suicide Squad: A restored version of John Waters’ low-budget, black-and-white movie Multiple Maniacs has being re-released in theaters, with a DVD/Blu-ray release coming soon from the Criterion Collection.

The 1970 comedy features Divine as the main attraction in a freak show called the Cavalcade of Perversion, in which spectators are lured into a tent to see lewd acts — like a woman licking a bicycle seat and “Two actual queers kissing!” — and then robbed and killed by Divine. Like many of Waters’ early works (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble), this film became an underground cult hit before Waters made a turn toward the mainstream in the 1980s with Hairspray

Multiple Maniacs is still quite a trip to watch today. The opening Cavalcade of Perversion scene is nothing compared to what happens later, including one sequence set in a church involving a rosary as an obscene prop and another in which Divine is sexually assaulted by a giant lobster. You read that right.

In conjunction with the movie’s return to theaters, Waters, 70, chatted with EW about that scene, how Multiple Maniacs was made, and what he thinks are the lasting effects of his work — and especially Divine’s — in today’s pop culture. Oh, and he also reveals his very John Waters-ish nickname for video-on-demand.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how proud are you that Multiple Maniacs is getting re-released — and by the art film label Janus Films?

JOHN WATERS: Oh, it’s so magical to me, honestly. Janus was the very first distributor that I associated with quality art films. They released all the Ingmar Bergman movies in Baltimore when I was growing up. And Ingmar Bergman, I know it might be hard to see, was a huge influence on me. He always had vomit and suicide and adult subject matter in his films.

And the very classy Criterion Collection is putting out the DVD/Blu-ray.

Amazing. It just shows that I always do well at the top and the bottom and never in the middle.

You’ve said that it looks now like a bad John Cassavetes movie.

[Laughs] It does. I know it’s been restored but I want to reassure people that it still looks bad. Or maybe it depends. If you like the film you’ll say it looks primitive. If you hate the film you’ll say bad. They’re both correct.

It actually has a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes — as of today, at least.

To be fair, it was never reviewed by The New York Times. [Editor’s note: The newspaper gave it a positive review after this interview was conducted.] Variety did review my first movie, Mondo Trasho, because it played in L.A. and somehow people saw it. Do you know that Pink Flamingos has never been reviewed in The New York Times? All the news that’s fit to print — or not. Vincent Camby wrote about it in a Sunday piece, but it never got a standard review, even when it was re-released for the 25th anniversary.

You remember last year, before The Revenant came out, when the Drudge Report ran a headline, “DICAPRIO RAPED BY BEAR.”

[Laughs] Yeah.

Well, you were way ahead of that trend, weren’t you?

Oh, the lobster. Yep, what can I say? Divine gets raped by a lobster. Rape is never funny, but it’s kinda a little bit funny with a lobster. There are actually two rape scenes in Multiple Maniacs that are kinda funny. The other one is by, hmm, I don’t know what you would call it today, I’m trying to think of the politically correct term. A homicidal bearded drag queen — is that politically correct?

Do you think people have become too politically correct?

I don’t know. I mean, I saw Multiple Maniacs with an audience for the first time at the Provincetown Film Festival this summer and it still works. Maybe the movie is worse than it ever was. But people laugh, even at the rape scenes. If something is turned around and made ridiculous enough, anything can be funny.

Where did the idea of the lobster come from?

Well, in Provincetown this summer, someone said, “That acid must have been pretty good in the ’70s.” And it’s a fair comment, because I wrote the lobster scene in Provincetown and there was a very popular postcard of a giant boiled lobster in the sky over the beach. And while tripping, I did think of that for the rape scene.

Where did the movie first screen?

In Baltimore in a Unitarian church. Then it also played in Provincetown. But this was 1970 and I would rent an art theater and give out flyers on the street. If nobody came I’d owe them a fortune, but we always used to sell out.

And so you actually made some money on the release?

Yes. I distributed it myself. I would have the prints in the trunk of my car and Divine and I would drive around. Sometimes Divine would be in costume and we’d hand out flyers and stuff. But the only real booking it ever had in those days was at a theater that showed porn in the day. And in order to be socially redeeming, they’d put on a midnight show of avant garde movies. It was a great booking because you got a dollar a minute. So I got $90 a week and I used that to pay back my father, who loaned me the money to make the movie.

What did your dad think of the movie?

He was horrified and never saw it, but was very amazed that I paid him back with interest.

The movie’s opening 15 minutes features the Cavalcade of Perversion, a circus of taboo performers, which looks like it was filmed in the woods.

That was the front lawn of my parents’ house! You can see my parents’ house in the background. I’m sure they were huddled inside, nervous. That scene at the end when Divine goes looking in people’s windows — that was my parents’ neighbor’s house. We didn’t say anything. Luckily they weren’t having breakfast. Can you imagine having breakfast and you look up and see Divine staring through your window?

Is there anybody like Divine now?

I would say no, although I’ll get in trouble for that.

Why?

Because Divine’s influence is felt everywhere. Every drag queen you see on RuPaul’s show. And they did a whole tribute show last year to my movies, which I was on. When I was young, drag queens were square. They wanted to be Miss America. And those pretty drag queens hated Divine. He’d show up with fake scars on his face, carrying a chainsaw and stuff. They didn’t know how to deal with that. But almost every drag queen today is like Divine. Even if you hate my movies, he made drag queens more hip and more cool and more cutting-edge. Drag queens didn’t want to be their mothers anymore.

And the influence is seen with female comedians, too. People like Amy Schumer or Melissa McCarthy are definitely drawing on that vulgar, elevated style.

Well, didn’t you ever see Melissa McCarthy dressed as Divine? That was in Entertainment Weekly! She dressed as Divine in Pink Flamingos.

In most of your early films, Divine is shot or executed.

Well, in Multiple Maniacs, Divine is saved by the Infant of Prague, my favorite Catholic saint. So I guess it’s redemptive.

But then she’s definitely punished in the end.

Yeah, because at the end he has become Godzilla. I’ve always said that Divine never wanted to pass as a woman. Divine was not one bit transgender. He wanted to pass as Godzilla. And at the end, he’s the monster that everybody feared.

The ending is hilarious, but there is something politically trenchant about it: Divine is surrounded and the National Guard troops are all pointing their rifles at her. I think there’s a tank or an armored vehicle in the background, too.

I think that’s your imagination. There was no tank, believe me. I could barely afford the 10 soldier uniforms I rented from a costume shop. Or maybe we got them at Sunny Surplus, I can’t remember. But, yeah, that plays really well today. People might be more shocked by it today than they were back then.

How did you film that final chase scene? There’s a dog in the crowd and a baby and a blind man.

Yes, the blind man’s in every shot. It’s totally inconsistent. We come around the corner and there’s the blind man and his stick again. And that is because I just couldn’t stop him. I mean, I had no permit to do that or anything. That was just Sunday morning on the streets of Baltimore. So people just sort of joined the crowd, like kids that were just in the neighborhood. We had been arrested while making my first film, Mondo Trasho, so I was nervous about that. But no police came. We were fine.

Why did you choose to end Multiple Maniacs with the music of “America the Beautiful”? Was that a snarky commentary?

No, I liked that song. In contrast to what was happening onscreen, it was basically there to pay tribute to all American things, even though I was making a movie that would seem the exact opposite of that. This sounds too intellectual, but I would say that is what’s so great about America: that I could make a movie like this and not go to jail. And it would open in a church.

For all the perversion in your movies, you’re not really cynical, are you?

I’m not. And why should I be? The censor board tried to stop the release of Multiple Maniacs and the judge watched it and said, “My eyes were insulted for 90 minutes but it’s not illegal.” And I said to myself, “I love America.”

What are your favorite movies of this year so far?

I do my 10 best in Artforum every year so I’ll save the full list for that. But I would say my two favorites so far in 2016 have been Weiner-Dog and Tickled.

You haven’t made a film since A Dirty Shame, which was more than 10 years ago. Are there any updates on Fruitcake, a movie that you were working on?

The update is that it’s DOA. I’ve been pregnant with that one for eight years. But I can’t even seem to have an anal birth on that one. And, so you know, I’m not being gross — “anal birth” is just another term for VOD [Laughs].

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