The films of John Waters come direct from the counterculture, but their target audience has always been a more conservative crowd. His first feature-length sound film, Multiple Maniacs , begins with “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions,” a tent-set peep show dedicated to the exhibition of fetishes, sex acts, and other misbehaviors. “Two actual queers kissing,” promises Mr. David, the carnival barker, and the promise is fulfilled in close-up, all while the crowd shouts “Ew!” and “Weird!” in response. When we’re back outside, Waters’ camera pans in a circle, revealing the location where this tent has been set up: It’s stationed on a suburban lawn, and the crowd being waved in is full of flat-haired nine-to-five types. Bourgeois pearl-clutching is the subject of the scene—ostensible perversity causing shock, despite the onlookers attending of their own volition—just as it was the mission statement for the NC-17 rated career that would follow it—Pink Flamingos , Female Trouble , and Desperate Living  were next, all of them regulars on the hipster-laden midnight-movie circuit. As Waters stated outright in a recent interview, “The richer the neighborhood, the better we’d do.” He didn’t just know that he was selling transgression. He also knew who he was selling it to.
With that said, Multiple Maniacs didn’t sell much during its first life. The Baltimore-set independent feature has traditionally only been seen on VHS and via beat-to-hell 16mm prints; it was never officially released to the theatrical market in the United States, only playing one-offs, midnight shows, and in retrospectives, the vast majority of which happened after the relative success of Waters’ later pictures. Its current theatrical release from Janus Pictures—the highbrow distributors responsible for the Criterion Collection—will represent its widest exhibition yet, with bookings at more than 20 different art-house theaters set for the summer and fall (the film plays at the Coolidge Corner Theatre at midnight this Friday and Saturday, with 10pm shows scheduled for the rest of the week.) It’s back in the rich neighborhoods, where its playfully naughty sense of shock value will entertain another set of normals, now gathered in a different kind of tent.
Though even rougher and less refined than Waters’ next films, Multiple Maniacs retains the general approach of those movies: a cheekily genre-based narrative propels his characters from one deliberately repulsive set piece to another. Mr. David (David Lochary) brings in the bougies, who are entertained by the perversions they are promised, and are then robbed at gunpoint by Lady Divine (Divine) as a finale. Divine decides to murder one of the day’s attendees, which proves to be a point of contention during the walk home, causing Mr. David to sneak away with a mistress, the bleached-platinum Bonnie (Mary Vivien Pearce). Their rendezvous is immediately snitched about to Divine, who’s been sleeping with David, and thus declares intentions for vengeance. But on her way to their location, Divine is raped by a pair of drug addicts, and then led to a church by the Infant Jesus of Prague. An attempt at legitimate spiritual communion is made, but is quickly interrupted by a self-described “religious whore” (Mink Stole), who proceeds to commit sex acts on Divine with a rosary while simultaneously reciting the Stations of the Cross. With their connection solidified, Mink and Divine plan to murder David and Bonnie, meanwhile David and Bonnie plan to murder Divine alone; when the four intersect, Lady Divine reverts to her basest self—a relentlessly pleasure-seeking egomaniac unencumbered by even the slightest sense of moral conscience or social responsibility—and the film itself begins to warp, adopting the aesthetic of a 1950s kaiju movie, with its hero taking aim at the target audience once again, terrorizing figures like two 20-somethings making out in a Plymouth.
Maniacs continued Waters’ lifelong discourse with audiences prone to shock, but the conversation wasn’t entirely inviting. Formally speaking, this is rebellious cinema, devoid of all classicism, marked by shaky compositions and unkempt blocking, starkly graceless black-and-white photography, actors breaking smiles and shaking lines, and harsh long takes that make no effort to hide all these aforementioned limitations. (The notable exception is Divine, whose vaudeville-adjacent acting style was fully-formed and intensely-expressive even in his earliest work.) Just as Waters’ scripts cut against respectable social cultures—long before the days where a phrase like “rosary job” could be dropped nonchalantly in the middle of a plot summary—his filmmaking methods were cutting against the respectability of the film industry, discarding their every nicety in favor of genuine ugliness.
That’s the quality that separates the outsiders from the insiders, especially today, when dialogue like “I love you so fucking much that I could shit” can pass without a blink in a general-release studio comedy. Whether that line comes from Multiple Maniacs or Sausage Party —the comparably blasphemous R-rated animated movie featuring the voices of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, and Jonah Hill—is something we’ll leave for you to discover. The Rogen-led Party is its own genre riff, subverting the allegories about anthropomorphized objects made by Pixar; a late scene mimics a Toy Story  climax, framing and all. Its constructed world is mostly confined to a supermarket, where fully conscious foodstuffs live under the belief that humans are gods and the outside world is a heavenly paradise. After escaping from their packages, a hot dog (Rogen) and a bun (Wiig) come to believe that a minor sexual transgression might engender spiritual punishment, which eventually leads to the revelation that their Great Beyond is a false belief masking inevitable death (being eaten), which then allows for narrative questions regarding the way that religiously-oriented psychologies are shaken by the concept of atheism. What fills the time between explications of its Woody Allen-esque pseudo-philosophy—Edward Norton imitates that director’s iconic diction while voicing the role of a bagel—are stereotypes designed to push the bounds of good taste, whatever that is these days—and given that good taste in 2016 is in one way or another inextricable from identity politics, the film answers that challenge with old-school racist stereotypes. A Catholic taco (Salma Hayek) is wracked with repressed sexual guilt, a lavash (David Krumholtz) wages holy war on the bagels, the one primary character voiced by a black performer (Craig Robinson) is a box of grits. Just as Maniacs did, Sausage Party ends with choreographed chaos, in this case via a food orgy, one that gleefully violates the demeanors of its various stereotypes. And like the other recent films that Rogen has written with partner Evan Goldberg—This is the End  and The Interview —this is an ideologically-minded genre spoof, which is exactly how you might classify the films of Mr. Waters. In Multiple Maniacs, the climactic chaos instead came in the form of a blood-orgy, which connected the film to the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, particularly Two Thousand Maniacs! , which gave Waters his title. Lewis’ films were themselves highly transgressive, characterized by then-extreme levels of on-screen gore, and much like Waters’ early cinema, they have been rendered almost harmless by decades of mainstream films that have crossed similar lines.
What separates Waters from his mainstream successors is a matter of presentation. Sausage Party is more accurate in its mimicry, conjuring up the same glossy aesthetic and narrative framework displayed by the films it’s taking the piss from; the same chase sequences, the same character design, and the same repetitive writing, complete with directly stated themes delivered in the speechifying manner of a true-blue made-for-kids animated movie (one of its two directors has prior credits on Monsters vs. Aliens and Shrek 2.) Sausage Party is profane, blasphemous, and quite presentable too, which is part of the reason it was able to open well at the box office last weekend, all while Waters has spent the past decade failing to get his latest scripts financed.
Sausage Party‘s mainstream acceptance is not particularly surprising, given the widespread success and commodification of bad taste in studio film comedies throughout the 2000s. What is surprising is just how banal this kind of transgression has become. Beyond Sausage Party’s tired stereotypes and first-draft punchlines is a trenchant critique of spirituality—but then that critique is nothing you haven’t heard in thirty years of Woody Allen dramas, and that fart joke is nothing you haven’t heard in ten years of Apatow-produced scat-comedies. Sausage Party may even be smart, but once you settle into its concept, it doesn’t shock you. It’s likely that Waters’ works were consumed by audiences not much hipper than the Sausage Party crowd, but the movies themselves were marked by artful skewering of attitudes and forms, aestheticized by decisions that cut against “the market.” His films understood that subversion requires the element of surprise—and that surprise requires a target audience that can still be shocked. The movie he’s been trying to finance in recent years, Fruitcake, would’ve pushed that dynamic even further. Waters claimed that it too would be modeled after kid’s movies—and unlike Rogen and company, he actually wanted kids to be the audience.
MULTIPLE MANIACS. NOT RATED. PLAYS FRI 8.19 AND SAT 8.20 AT THE COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE. 290 HARVARD STREET, BROOKLINE. MIDNIGHT. $11.25.
SAUSAGE PARTY. RATED R. NOW PLAYING EVERYWHERE.