John Waters’ second feature “Multiple Maniacs” — about depraved performance artists who rob and kill unsuspecting audiences — was so rude and crude for 1970, it could have gotten the legendary filmmaker arrested.
A “lewd” scene in “Mondo Trasho” the year before landed the director in jail for conspiracy to commit indecent exposure. And as far as racy subject matter, “Multiple Maniacs” (which screens Friday at the Castro) only upped the ante.
“I’d never ask if we could film,” says Waters. “There was no film commissioner or permit office, only film perverts. We’d just go somewhere, jump out of a car and film it. Most of the time, no one said anything. But we were all nervous this time, because we thought, ‘Uh oh, we don’t want to get arrested again.’”
So Waters, who famously sets all of his movies in his native Baltimore, was extra careful during filming. That’s why the opening “cavalcade of perversions” scene was shot on his parents’ front lawn, the rosary job sequence was filmed under the nose of the local church priest and the Stations of the Cross re-creation was shot on a dirt road in an empty blue-collar neighborhood.
“It was filmed guerrilla style,” says Waters, “but we didn’t know that there was another way to do it. I learned all that later.”
Waters struggled for years after to get the grainy, low-budget 16mm film restored and released again. So when Janus Films and the Criterion Collection approached him about reissuing it in 4K digital, he was ecstatic.
“Janus Films did all the first art movies I ever saw,” he says. “So the most shocking thing about the re-release of ‘Multiple Maniacs’ is not when Divine eats the heart or the rosary job or the lobster rape. It’s when the Janus logo comes on the screen before the pitiful credits start rolling.”
Originally, the famed distribution company assumed Waters wanted to preserve every piece of dirt, every splice mark and every scratch, but he quickly set them straight.
“I said ‘Let’s make it look as good as modern science can,’” he says. “No one will miss the smudges of dirt on it because the content is so hideous, probably more so today than even in 1970. This is one long trigger warning.”
While “Multiple Maniacs” was mostly ignored upon its original release, it has since won critics over, garnering a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
“It’s a movie that cost five thousand dollars and it does have some competition, but it’s certainly being received today a billion times better than when it came out,” Waters says. “It was a punk rock movie, even though there was no such thing for seven more years.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Divine, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, Mink Stole
Written and directed by John Waters
Running time 1 hour, 36 ninutes
Note: The film screens at 7 and 11 p.m. Sept. 16 at 429 Castro St., S.F., and tickets are $12; www.castrotheatre.com.