The gloriously grotesque second feature directed by John Waters is 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 Waters’ native Baltimore, with the filmmaker 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 mounted by a troupe of misfits whose shocking proclivities are topped only by those of their leader: the glammer-than-glam, larger-than-life Divine, out for blood after discovering her lover’s affair. Starring Waters’ beloved regular cast the Dreamlanders (including David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, George Figgs, and Cookie Mueller), Multiple Maniacs is an anarchic masterwork from an artist who has doggedly tested the limits of good taste for decades.
John Waters’ sophomore feature Multiple Maniacs defies all odds and gets a brand new Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection, presented in the director’s preferred European arthouse aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc. The surprisingly good 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration of the film, which was scanned from the original 16mm film materials. The notes state that most of the film was shot on Kodak black-and-white reversal film.
In the accompanying commentary, director Waters talks in great detail about the film stock used and how the original film elements were stored through the years, which horrifyingly were in a number of hot attics reaching over 100 degrees at times through the years. Amazingly the elements have remained in extraordinarily good condition after all of this time (Criterion’s notes even express shock at this) and this new 4K restoration, downscaled to high-definition for Blu-ray of course, is a marvel to behold. This is another one of those cases where a film looks far better than it probably has any right to look, and it’s another case where I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn it looks even better than it did at its original premiere.
Expectedly there are some shortcomings, the impromptu/haphazard nature behind the film more than likely the reason. The film, which is made up of very long takes (as mentioned in the features it’s as though the film was composed entirely of footage from master shots), features framing issues, many out-of-focus moments, hairs or debris in the gate, and so on and so forth. There are also minor tramlines present and some shifts in the frame. But generally speaking the materials look to be in terrific shape and the damage that remains is minimal. Overall the image is very clean and I found this to be an incredible surprise.
The digital presentation also retains a filmic look throughout. The film is very grainy but the grain looks superb, keeping a natural look and never taking the look of noise. The image is as sharp and detailed as it can be: when the image is out-of-focus detail is obviously limited but when everything is in focus it can look surprisingly sharp and the fine details come through. The film can look a bit blown out a lot of the time, with very bright whites, but I think this is just simply how the film looks, nothing to do with the restoration and transfer. Contrast levels otherwise look fine and black levels are very strong.
It has a few hang-ups due to the source and limitations present while shooting occurred, but those behind this restoration have really put in a lot of effort here and the end results have made the work worthwhile. All-in-all it’s a stunning restoration and presentation.
Presented in lossless PCM 1.0 mono, the film’s soundtrack is probably about as good as it can be at the moment, limited by materials and the condition of the shoot. Waters in his commentary and the included essay mention that the audio does sound better here but even if that is the case it still has some rough edges. Dialogue is actually easy to hear and I didn’t need to turn on the subs, but the audio does present noticeable distortions and it does come off a flat. Background noise is also present but I don’t recall any big drops or scratches. Again, I feel this is as good as it gets.
Criterion gives the film a modest little special edition, nowhere near as elaborate as I would have expected for John Waters’ debut DVD/Blu-ray Criterion release (Criterion had previously released Pink Flamingos and Polyester on LaserDisc). Thankfully we do get an audio commentary featuring Waters, recorded on the day the new restoration of Multiple Maniacs premiered in New York. Waters (whose unexpectedly academic contribution to Criterion’s release of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls made for one of my favourite features from last year) gives a very high energy and captivating talk about the film’s production, his intent with it, and his thoughts on it now. He’s especially concerned with how modern audiences might see it, and he wonders aloud how it might work with a more “PC” crowd and he admits that things not offensive at the time may be more offensive now and vice-versa. He also comments on changes he would probably make now, admitting that there are times where a cut is needed or a scene should be trimmed down a bit (he laughs during a scene during the climax where Divine breaks every window on a car, amused that he felt it was necessary to show every window get smashed).
I actually found myself touched at some of his more reflective moments, recalling the friendships he built during the time the film was made and him lamenting on those he’s lost over the years. It’s very nostalgic at times and you get a sense that Waters has entered a type of time warp, but the track is also very funny as he recounts some great anecdotes about his friends and their reluctant parents. Waters also gets very technical about film stock, equipment and the various “effects” within the film, and also responds with joy to this new restoration (commenting on a number of improvements) and seeing the film now distributed theatrically by Janus and getting a Criterion video release, putting it up there in his mind with many of his favourite European films. I have a feeling Criterion will be releasing other works by Waters and if they do I really hope they get more input from him; it is a blast listening to him talk about his work.
(As a side note, for those who may have a small bit of hope, Waters does state rather matter-of-factly on this track that his debut feature, Mondo Trasho, will never get a home video release.)
Criterion then includes a couple of video features. The first is a collection of interviews featuring actors Pat Moran, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe, and George Figgs, along with Vincent Peranio, who I guess would classified as the film’s production designer. Aside from Lowe and Figgs, who have been filmed together, everyone has been recorded on their own. The interviews nicely expand on what Waters covers in his commentary, all five recalling the time period, how they came to meet Waters, how the film came together, and reflecting on their former cast mates no longer with us. Peranio also talks in more detail about how he created the lobster monster that shows up in the film. There are some funny stories and asides (like a moment where Lowe and Figgs have differing opinions on sniffing glue), and I also chuckled at how a couple of participants catch themselves when they’re about to curse. Ultimately it’s mostly beneficial in offering wonderful insights into their scene of weird outcasts and how that played into the film’s production. The feature runs about 32-minutes.
The second video feature attempts to give a more academic view though disappoints a little in that respect. The 11-minute video essay put together by Gary Needham entitled The Stations of Filth, which examines the unconventional (putting it mildly) nature of the film, its “shattering of values,” and even its European arthouse influences (in the commentary Waters talks about his love of Bergman’s work). It’s fine but I don’t think I found anything terribly revealing within it.
The disc then closes with Janus’ rerelease trailer and the included insert features an excellent essay by writer Linda Yablonsky on the film, its production, Waters’ career, and this film’s (and Water’s overall) impact.
Again I did initially expect this to be a very lavish, feature loaded release but it isn’t. At the very least we do get some great material in the included commentary and interviews. Hopefully Criterion is saving the good stuff for another title.
I would have expected an all-out, feature loaded special edition, but that is unfortunately not the case. At the very least we do get some great interviews and a fun commentary from Waters to accompany the stunning new restoration of the film. For fans of Waters and his work this release is a very easy recommendation.