Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s Multiple Maniacs

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Multiple Maniacs (1970)

With Criterion Collection’s release of Multiple Maniacs on Blu-ray, it’s hard to argue that we are not living in one of the best times to be a film fan. Long relegated to bootlegs of wavering quality, Criterion’s re-release, alongside an accompanying limited theatrical run, marks the most complete, wide presentation the film has ever seen. Privately financed and shot on a broadcast news 16mm camera, Waters made the film with the help of everyone he knew and with everyone handling multiples both on and off-camera. It was a ragtag production that lasted weeks, but the end result is a brilliant piece of trash and one of the strongest testaments to DIY film ethic.

The Criterion Collection’s new 4K restoration of Waters’ second feature film (and first with sync-sound) contains a nice booklet essay from critic and novelist Linda Yablonsky, as well as newly commissioned interviews with the remaining cast and crew, a feature length commentary track by John Waters and a video essay by Gary Needham.

Lessons in… Not Listening to Lessons

The idea of creating a “lesson plan” based on a John Waters film is ironic. Waters did his best work by essentially ignoring all the rules that would otherwise be imposed upon him (especially in his early work, before he began to work with studios.) However, that isn’t to say that Waters lacked strong ties to classic cinema. In fact, the opposite is true. In making Multiple Maniacs, Waters was thinking about Ingmar Bergman as much as H.G. Lewis. He famously states, and restates, that he always wanted to make exploitation films for arthouse theaters. Now, his dream has become an indisputable reality.

Multiple Maniacs follows Lady Divine’s motley crew of misfits, the Cavalcade of Perversion, a traveling “freak show,” as they are on the run from the law. Leaping on the then-recent Tate murders, (which caused an abrupt change in the script when, mid-production, the Manson family was revealed to be their culprits) Multiple Maniacs delights in exploitation. From heroin addicts to vomit eaters, filth is on beautifully on display, culminating in one of cinema’s most blasphemous scenes: the rosary job.

Though no lessons on formal technique really do Waters or Multiple Maniacs justice, moviemakers could use the film as a teachable moment for mashing up two seemingly disparate yet often compatible kinds of cinema, which, when fused together, can allow you to tap into two sets of filmgoing demographics. By giving the public what he learned from the likes of Lewis would get their asses to the theaters—lurid, pulpy trash—but putting a auteurist spin on that material, Waters set the stage for the arthouse and the grindhouse to begin to converge.

Lady Divine (Divine) cackles her way through mayhem and murder in John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs. Image courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Waters would have never gotten this film finished, however, if it wasn’t for the fact that basically every person he knew was willing to drop what they were doing to take on sometimes as many three or four production-oriented roles. This is another lesson that filmmakers should take from Multiple Maniacs: Use your friends. As John states in his commentary track, the filmmaking wasn’t “fun.” They would party (and he means party) off the set, but the sometimes-20-hour shoot days weren’t easy. With everyone invested, however, they got it done.

Fittingly, Pat Moran leaves filmmakers with an important lesson in her interview segment: “Use your own money, because that will really give you an incentive.”

Special Features

For John Waters’ first Criterion Blu-ray, the Multiple Maniacs release is a bit lacking in additional content, but what is presented goes a long way. Waters is a master speaker, so it goes without saying that his commentary track is one of the best that will be released this year. Although he does repeat himself a few times, Waters has a great time revisiting the work and giving us not only a detailed summation of how he got the film made, but taking us on a history lesson about “his” Baltimore and the players that made up his world. Sadly, many of the crew members have passed away, but Waters regales us with stories about them and is happy to have stayed in contact with nearly every person who appears in the film.

Yablonsky’s well-written essay clearly shows a strong familiarity with Waters’ brand and the film itself, although it does feel, at times, more like a straightforward “review” than what can be typically found in Criterion’s booklets. Beyond the commentary and film itself, the real jewel of the set is the series of interviews that Criterion arranged, which compiles insights and anecdotes from a good deal of the surviving cast and crew. This set of interviews is fun and solidifies the wild set stories that Waters describes on the commentary.

The Takeaway

What is the takeaway from Multiple Maniacs? Push boundaries, don’t be afraid to get messy, ask your friends to help, and go out and make your damn movie. (With Tangerine shot on an iPhone—a shockingly beautiful film despite its technological limitations—what’s your excuse?) Today it’s easier than ever to get it done. MM

Multiple Maniacs was released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD March 21, 2017. All images courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

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