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John Waters' 'Multiple Maniacs': perverted, sacrilegious and looking better than ever

Pat Moran, Vince Peranio, Mink Stole, George Figgs and Susan Lowe -- cast and crew members from John Waters’ “Multiple Maniacs” -- talk about “the most blasphemous film of the 20th century.” (Chris Kaltenbach/Baltimore Sun video)

The world would never be the same.

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And in Baltimore, a bunch of counterculture kids in their 20s were making an unabashedly blasphemous film about the murderous leader of a "Cavalcade of Perversions" who descends steadily into madness, ending up being raped by a 15-foot lobster and hunted down by the National Guard.

"Multiple Maniacs" was 24-year-old John Waters' second feature-length film, the first to include dialogue (his earlier feature, "Mondo Trasho," was filmed silent and had narration put in afterward). Like his earlier efforts, it starred and was created by a group of Waters' friends later known as the Dreamlanders (after Waters' Dreamland Studios). They were social outcasts — they freely acknowledge the label now, and would have then — determined to flout whatever rules society had laid down. And they reveled in capturing their rebellion on film.

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"It was a punk-rock movie," says Waters, who in the years since has become cinema's most celebrated unregenerate degenerate, happily tweaking almost every value society holds dear. "Certainly there was no such thing as punk, and we didn't know [that] it was. But the audience that came out was angry hippies with a sense of humor, gay and straight, and bikers. That's who really came to our early movies."

Saturday at the Charles Theatre, a restored version of "Multiple Maniacs," restored to the point where even Waters says it looks better than it ever has, will have its Baltimore premiere. Even at the ripe old age of 46, the film is not for the squeamish or the easily offended, including as it does scenes of murder, cannibalism, armpit licking and doing things with a rosary that must be left to the reader's imagination. It remains as merrily subversive as any piece of cinema ever released — George Figgs, who plays Jesus Christ in the movie, proudly calls it "the most blasphemous film of the 20th century."

To mark the occasion, we spoke with Waters and six longtime associates, all of whom worked on "Multiple Maniacs" and much of the rest of the Waters canon.

Our cast includes Waters, Figgs, actors Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and Bob Skidmore, art designer Vincent Peranio and Pat Moran, who acts in the film and pretty much served as Waters' right hand. All remain good friends and speak fondly of Divine, the 300-pound actor and drag queen who would go on to become Dreamland's biggest, and most beloved, star.

Just about everyone involved with "Multiple Maniacs" had worked with Waters before. In fact, they came together for the film simply because he was making it. Few knew much about what was going to happen.

Mink Stole: "We were still, 'Hey kids, let's put on a show!' There was no thought at all for what posterity would show. I never knew whether anybody was going to see these things. I trusted John — if something was going to be done, that John would do it right. It wasn't up to me."

George Figgs: "John never had to write characters. We existed. All he had to do was write us into things and give us lines that most of us would have already said."

Bob Skidmore: "We would all pile into a station wagon and we would just go do something."

John Waters: "At the time, we were fans of exploitation movies and art movies. I always tried to put them together. Herschell Gordon Lewis had made a movie called '2,000 Maniacs,' and this is really not anything like the plot, but the title is certainly a joke on that. There was also gore in it, when Divine eats the heart and all that stuff. That was certainly because of Herschell Gordon Lewis' influence at the time.

"I had made 'Mondo Trasho,' which was sort of a satire of all the 'Mondo' movies. And so this was — every one of my movies is a satire of a certain genre. And this was the gore movie."

Susan Lowe: "We were in love with Fellini, [Ingmar] Bergman. Andy Warhol's films, at that time, we thought were brilliant. We watched all those kinds of films, and we read books that we shouldn't have read, Nietzsche and William Burroughs and all that."

Friends and local celebrities wish John Waters a Happy 70th Birthday. (Baltimore Sun video)

"Multiple Maniacs" contains scenes that were anything but standard cinematic fare — the film-opening "Cavalcade of Perversions" (filmed under a tent pitched on the front lawn on Waters' parents' Lutherville home) features a guy eating vomit, a junkie going through withdrawal and a gal licking a bicycle seat; moves on to scenes involving sex in a church [a priest gave him permission to film there, Waters says, without knowing just what was going to be filmed] and ends in a mob chase through Fells Point that no city officials had been warned about beforehand. But Dreamlanders were game for anything.

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Figgs: "Back in those days, I actually thought I was Jesus Christ. I was taking a lot of acid and everything. I really did — and still do, in a way. I have messianic tendencies. I just said, 'Yes, of course I'll play Jesus. I am Jesus.'"

Peranio: "Basically, what he would do is, him and Pat Moran, maybe, would call the friends on a weekend and say, 'OK, get a sheet and a blanket. Meet us at 8 in the morning on Mill Race Road; we're gonna do the Stations of the Cross.' And that's what we did."

Moran: "It was certainly not unlike 'The Little Rascals' on LSD, basically making a movie, ... We were serious about it, but not without a sense of humor. That always prevailed. We always thought we were funny, to each other."

Lowe: "We were degenerates, and we loved it!"

The whole film was shot guerrilla-style — there was no state or city film office to run interference, no effort was made to get permits or alert anyone ahead of time that filming was about to happen.

Waters: "My favorite scene, there's one where Divine, Rick Morrow and David Lochary drive away from the 'Cavalcade' in an old white Cadillac convertible. That was David's real car. But it barely worked, and it died right when we were shooting. So when we pull into that parking lot — which is in the projects, by the way — we had to push it there, and just left it. You see them get out, and Rick has a gun, and Divine's in full drag, just getting out of a Cadillac convertible in the middle of the projects and running, basically."

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Then there's the scene everyone remembers — or at least the scene that everyone remembers that can be talked about in a mass-circulation newspaper: Divine, as lady Divine, alone in her room, progressively losing her mind, and (inexplicably) being raped by a giant lobster.

Waters: "In Provincetown, where we lived every summer even then, there was a postcard everywhere of the beach with a broiled lobster in the sky, it said, like, 'Visit Cape Cod.' We would always trip and used to say, 'Oh. God, this lobster in the sky is going to attack us.'"

Peranio: "He sent me this card, from Provincetown. It basically says, 'Can you make me a big lobster?' and a couple lines, how he thought it should be made — which is exactly what John does all the time. So he sent me this card, and of course I said yes.

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"John gave me $35. I worked for about a week and a half on making this aluminum frame and the chicken wire, and then covering it with papier-mache. And then we had little levers inside, and my brother and I got in it. And we raped Divine."

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The movie had its premiere April 10-12, 1970, in a hall at Baltimore's Unitarian Universalist Church on Hamilton Street. The cast and crew got all dressed up for the occasion, and the audiences, by all accounts, loved it. Evening Sun critic Lou Cedrone, however, was no fan, But Waters didn't mind.

Waters: "When it came out, it was 98 percent ignored, and 2 percent negative, from Lou Cedrone. I remember what he said, we used it in the ads: 'Waters' first talkie is also his first sickie.' We used that quote. ... He's right. I look back on it now, and think, 'Jesus.'"

Stole: "John made us love the bad reviews, because he reveled in the bad reviews. What we might have thought of as bad, John would say, 'Oh no, they're great.'"

As much as the Dreamlanders loved working with Waters, they loved working with Divine even more. Born Harris Glen Milstead, Divine died in 1988, following a successful career as a drag queen, singer and actor; just months before his death, childhood friends Waters and Divine had enjoyed the premiere of their most successful collaboration, 'Hairspray.' Divine was also set to begin a guest-starring role on the TV series "Married ... With Children."

Stole: "Divine was wonderful to work with. Always knew his lines, always was on time, never created any problems. He was such a professional. Did anything he was asked. He was also very generous. He was never trying to upstage me. He didn't have to."

Skidmore: "He was a friend first, more than a movie star. At the time, I knew he was going to be famous someday, but really didn't know how it was going to happen. Maybe not that movie, but some movie in the future."

Lowe: "I loved Divine. We smoked so much pot together."

Today, "Multiple Maniacs" looks cleaner and plays better than ever. Distributed by Janus Films, which has been distributing arthouse fare since the 1950s, the restoration is good news for the Dreamlanders, for all sorts of reasons.

Waters: "First they said, 'Do you want us to keep all, to restore all the scratches and the dirt?' No, I said. 'I never wanted it to look like that. Make it new, let's make it look as good as you can.' What they can do today is amazing."

Moran: "The most amazing thing for me, with this new release, is that when I saw it, the first thing I saw was the Janus [logo]. It came right up, and my jaw dropped. Because I remember every Janus thing that ... I ever saw as a young person. It's more shocking than anything in the movie."

Peranio: "It's not like looking at any other film. It's truly home movies to me. That's what we were doing for fun and amusement at that time, with all of our friends. You want to laugh; you want to cry. There are so many mixed feelings now — what is it, 47 years later?"

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If you go

The restored version of "Multiple Maniacs" will be shown at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 10, 7 p.m. Sept. 12 and 9 p.m. Sept. 15 at The Charles, 1711 N. Charles St. Waters will introduce the film and do a post-screening Q&A on Sept. 12. $7.50-$9.50. thecharles.com.

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