A prolific independent filmmaker and theater professional best known for the low-budget exploitation movies he made from the late ’60s to the late ’80s, Andy Milligan was spectacularly devoid of cinematic talent. His shameless use of excessive gore ensured that he found outlets for much of his work on the drive-in and grindhouse circuits, his microscopic budgets kept him productive, and, in the years following his ’70s heyday, he developed a small cult following. A colorful and tragic life story contributes to his current infamous status, because the openly gay director enjoyed S&M, lived for a while in England, spent much of his working life operating out of grungy locations throughout Manhattan, and was a pauper at the time he died from AIDS. Viewed in the abstract, he’s a fascinating subject for further study.
Viewed up close, at least through the prism of his ’70s movies, not so much. Taken as camp, the features Milligan released from 1970 to 1978 might pass muster for purely ironic consumption. Taken at face value, they’re as bad as first-year student films, with dopey dialogue, incoherent storylines, pathetic production values, stilted acting, and terrible camerawork. Editing is a special problem, because scenes start and stop abruptly, continuity and screen direction are chaotic, and Milligan was consistently incapable of generating proper logic, momentum, and pacing. Yet perhaps Milligan’s most egregious cinematic offense is padding his movies with interminable melodrama. Characters in these flicks talk and talk and talk, bombarding each other with repetitious lines that exist on a level below the worst soap-opera chatter. Whenever someone gets a cleaver to the head—a favorite mode of killing in Milligan’s movies—it’s a relief because it means at least one character will shut the fuck up.
So why do some people find Milligan fascinating? According to Jimmy McDonough’s biography The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan—as well as countless online tributes—Milligan was artist in extremis, using independent filmmaking as a form of therapy to work out psychosexual problems. The idea is that watching the incessant deviance, hatred, and violence in Milligan’s movies provides a window into a troubled soul. Fair enough. But since most of us will never find the time to watch all the films made by skilled filmmakers whose work sprang from complex psyches, why waste time parsing the output of someone without talent? Oh, well. To each their own.
After getting his movie career going with releases including The Degenerates (1967), The Filthy Five (1968), and Gutter Trash (1969)—one senses a theme—Milligan entered a new decade at full throttle, releasing five movies in 1970. The pace of his releases gives a good indication of the quality control, or lack thereof, defining Milligan’s output. Bloodthirsty Butchers offers a scuzzy take on the familiar story of Sweeney Todd, a fictional horror character whose exploits are set in Victorian England. As always, the so-called “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” kills customers, then gives the body parts to a baker who uses the human remains as ingredients in pies. Actors ranging from awful to merely mediocre recite florid dialogue in ugly locations amid garish lighting. Something nasty happens every so often, but the FX makeup is laughable. Attentive viewers may detect traces of Milligan’s S&M interests, though even the sex scenes suffer from amateurism; actors seem as if they’re giving each other airport-security pat-downs instead of heavy petting. The film’s most amusing moment involves someone peeling the crust off a pie and discovering a woman’s dismembered breast inside, nipple inexplicably erect.
Torture Dungeon finds Milligan loosely adapting Shakespeare, because the story is a riff on Richard III, with an English nobleman killing people ahead of him in line for the crown. Although he’s playing a duke, leading man Gerald Jacuzzo gives a performance best described as queeny, all bulging eyes, flamboyant gestures, and sing-song vocalizations. The following rant, uttered by the duke in a reflective moment, should suffice as a demonstration of Milligan’s problematic dialogue style. “Let me explain something to you, my dear. I live for pleasure. Only second to power, of course. And I’ll try anything. I’m not a homosexual. I’m not a heterosexual. I’m not asexual. I’m try-sexual. Yes, that’s it. I’ll try anything for pleasure.” Clumsy verbiage aside, you begin to see why some folks perceive deeper meanings in Milligan’s work, but it’s difficult to justify close readings of a 77-minute trash opus with people getting decapitated and impaled at regular intervals.
The Body Beneath is one of myriad vampire pictures in the Milligan oeuvre. (It’s also one of many flicks in which he brazenly steals elements from Bram Stoker, since the estate where most of the action takes place is called Carfax Abbey.) Compared to the director’s other pictures, The Body Beneath is relatively coherent and slick, telling the story of an undead priest who rules a family of vampires that procreates through incest and the use of love slaves. As the flick grinds through quasi-softcore sex scenes and the usual amateurish gore, two elements stand out, but not in a good way. The priest’s vampire brides often appear in ghoulish makeup, but the makeup is so cheap as to be silly rather than sinister—lots of blue gunk slathered across women’s faces. Milligan also goes wild with the old-timey effect of smearing Vaseline across a filter over the camera lens, thereby blurring the edges of the frame. That gets old fast. While The Body Beneath may be Milligan’s best ’70s flick, that’s not saying much.
Presumably, Guru, The Mad Monk was inspired by movies including Witchfinder General (1968), the disturbing Vincent Price thriller about a monstrous man tasked with rooting out occultists. Like that picture, Guru, the Mad Monk concerns an evil official who uses his position for personal advantage. Specifically, the plot involves prison guard Carl, who falls for Nadja, a peasant woman unjustly accused of murder. Carl enlists the help of Father Guru (Neil Flanagan) and a witch named Olga, who contrives potions that allow Nadja to simulate death and thus escape imprisonment. For her part, Olga wants the prison guard to let her seize blood from freshly executed prisoners because she uses blood in rituals. Meanwhile, Father Guru wants political power of some sort. (The script is so inept that it’s not worth parsing.) In laughable scenes, Father Guru looks into mirrors and talks to himself, turning his head whenever the “voice” of an alternate personality takes control. Predictably, the movie’s gore is goofy. To suggest that someone’s eyes were impaled, Milligan cuts to props that look like ping-pong balls fused with chopsticks and slathered with ketchup. Oy.
Milligan’s final 1970 release was the X-rated melodrama Nightbirds, a black-and-white picture about counterculture angst featuring lots of explicit sex (putting it beyond the scope of this survey). After disappearing from the marketplace for many years, Nightbirds resurfaced in the 2010s when hip Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn purchased and distributed an old 16mm print. His online remarks to the effect that family members and friends think he’s mad to champion Milligan make for interesting reading.
Despite hitting screens just months after American-International’s The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971), Milligan’s first 1972 flick, The Man With Two Heads, does not depict a character with dual craniums. Rather, it’s a deranged take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal story “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” After about 20 minutes of dull chitty-chat, Dr. Jekyll (Denis DeMarne) finally transforms into “Danny Blood,” a De Sade-quoting brute who gets his kicks torturing a prostitute named April (Julia Stratton). In the film’s longest and most unpleasant scene, “Danny” punches and slaps April, forces her to crawl on the floor and bark like a dog, burns her face with a cigar, and stops just short of raping her, the better to prolong his twisted arousal. “You shouldn’t be allowed on the face of this earth!” He screams at her. “You’re scum! You’re the defecation of the slums of London!” Perhaps more than any other of Milligan’s ’70s films, The Man With Two Heads makes the persuasive case that Milligan used movies to process issues, but in this case, the issue seems to be unrelenting hatred for women. Until it devolves into bloody chaos during an incoherent scene combining an orgy and a killing spree, The Man With Two Heads is almost technically competent, and DeMarne’s leading performance isn’t bad. Thematically, however, The Man With Two Heads is vile.
The title of Milligan’s next opus—The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!—might be the best thing in his entire filmography, though one assumes Nicholas Winding Refn would argue the point. Alas, the movie doesn’t have the same vitality as the moniker, because it’s a painfully boring domestic drama concerning the horrid Mooney family. These 19th-century Brits spend all their time abusing each other physically and verbally; in one scene, repugnant protagonist Monica (Hope Stansbury) visits her mentally challenged brother, whom the family keeps locked in room filled with chickens, then pours hot wax on him and beats him with a broom. Eventually, Milligan gets around to introducing horror elements, with brief scenes of rats (some of which get killed on camera) and a wisp of lycanthropy (translation: a few actors wear hairy masks). Yet most of this interminable film comprises aimless familial nastiness.
Nineteen seventy-three found Milligan broadening his cinematic horizons, after a fashion, because he did uncredited directing work on a porno film called Dragula—a gay spin on Stoker—and used his real name while making a skin show called Fleshpot on 42nd Street. (Like Nightbirds, both films fall outside this survey’s parameters.) Then it was back to gore for the succinctly titled Blood. Shot in and around the house where Milligan lived at the time of filming, this is low-budget schlock at its least impressive. The discombobulated plot involves a werewolf and Dracula’s daughter hiding out while the werewolf performs arcane scientific experiments. Also featured are amputees, bizarre servants, flesh-eating plants, and a prissy lawyer. Any improvements in technical areas that Milligan achieved while filming The Man With Two Heads seem to have evaporated before he shot Blood, which has nonsensical camera angles, out-of-focus shots, and pitiful sound quality. Milligan also takes the gimmick of killing animals onscreen to a nauseating extreme, because at one point an actress chops a mouse in half, then shoves the tail end into her mouth.
Milligan’s ’70s output sputtered to a halt with Legacy of Blood, which, title notwithstanding, bears no relation to its immediate predecessor. Rather, Legacy of Blood is a loose remake of Milligan’s 1968 movie The Ghastly Ones. And here’s where things get confusing. Both The Ghastly Ones and Legacy of Blood steal the basic plot from The Cat and the Canary, a 1922 play that has been filmed, officially and unofficially, many times. (Premise: Relatives gather in a creepy house to compete for an inheritance, but a killer stalks them.) Among the other unauthorized versions of The Cat and the Canary is a 1971 movie with John Carradine, Blood Legacy a/k/a Legacy of Blood. Yep. Same title. Although Milligan’s Legacy of Blood was unavailable for review, reports from those who’ve seen the picture suggest it has all the usual flaws, from bad acting to incompetent filmmaking, with dialogue consuming most of the screen time.
On the topic of legacies, it’s disheartening to look at the scope of Milligan’s career and see how little he had to show for his work, the adoration of Nicholas Winding Refn notwithstanding. As of this writing, not one of Milligan’s ’70s movies has a rating above five (out of ten) stars on IMDb, and most online commentary about the man’s work focuses on his remarkable cinematic incompetence. (The same is even more true of his later output; Milligan made a handful of widely detested pictures in the ’80s and died in 1991.) As noted earlier, it’s not as if Milligan’s screen career set him up financially—exactly the opposite. One therefore hopes that he had more fun making his movies than most people have watching them, or at least found some measure of release from his psychosexual hangups.
Bloodthirsty Butchers: SQUARE
Torture Dungeon: SQUARE
The Body Beneath: LAME
Guru, the Mad Monk: SQUARE
The Man With Two Heads: FREAKY
The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!: SQUARE