BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The high cost of mounting a feature film demands that filmmakers keep an eye on telling stories that will attract an audience. If you’re going to spend a $100 million on a film, you better make sure the characters you’re introducing appeal to a wide variety of people. In contrast, tonight Andrew’s Video Vault will be showing three micro-budgeted films whose low-stake economics allowed their filmmakers to stick stubbornly to their own quietly insane vision, regardless of how potentially off-putting or extreme.
Two of the films come out of New York City’s much-storied Times Square grindhouse scene of the last century. First up is the newly restored version of 1969’s Nightbirds, directed by the deeply infamous Andy Milligan. Milligan’s improbable life was well-documented in Jimmy McDonough’s 2003 biography The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan. Milligan made sex films and bloody horror films, but regardless of the genre his films are filled with pathetic lowlife types, psycho-sexual drama and perverse mother fixations. Much of his output was shot in his Staten Island home but Nightbirds was produced during Milligan’s brief relocation to London. Mainly a two-person drama, Nightbirds stars Julie Shaw and Berwick Kaler are Dee & Dink, as a pair of ragged hippies, stealing to pay the rent while they work out their sexual hang-ups. Initially the beautiful Dee seems unusually generous in helping Dink overcome his sexual shyness, but later we see there is something dark lurking in her soul when she tells him, “Your smile makes me feel like a vampire in the sunlight.”
Milligan, personally renowned for being a sadistic, difficult bastard, seems to thrive on scenes in which excruciating secrets are revealed and humiliation is ready to pounce around every corner. Nightbirds grainy black & white melodrama comes at the end of the era when audiences would still flock to any film with soft-core nudity; yet while audiences may be intermittently titillated, the story’s characters are going to be cruelly punished for our dirty little thoughts. Milligan’s threadbare productions reportedly drew groans from the raincoat crowd when their titles popped up on double bills in Times Square, their sexy segments always separated by forlorn monologues of woe. Somehow, beneath his films’ petty irritations, Milligan’s spare psycho-sexual melodrama reveals that the influence of director Ingmar Bergman was felt even by brutish New Yawk misfits.
Mystique is the product of two of the more iconoclastic characters of the New York adult film scene, director Roberta Findley and screenwriter Roger Watkins. Georgina Spelvin (star of the classic The Devil in Miss Jones) is Alma, a middle aged photographer whose unnamed ailment has forced her to give up her career and retire to a life of inactivity in a house on the Long Island Sound. There she meets Cosima (Samantha Fox) who first offers love, then begins to embody the fears and desires that lurk beneath Alma’s psyche. With Mystique‘s market already assured by fulfilling its expectations of plentiful sex scenes, the film is free to deal with Watkin’s offbeat obsessions. Watkins’ scripts are always littered with allusions to “high art” and Mystique opens with a quote from French poet/philosopher Paul Valéry, opining that a unfulfilled life is like a drop of wine spilling into the ocean. Alma is shown to be a classical music aficionado, obsessing over Mahler’s “Songs for Dead Children.” and like most of Watkins slender filmography, fear, depression, and death seem to be lingering just off frame. Again, the far-reaching influence of Bergman is present, partially because mounting something similar to the Swedish master’s high-pressure psychological examinations is a financial option for a small-budgeted film. Findlay’s direction is impressively fluid throughout, mixing some effective cross-cutting and montage sequences to give Georgina Spelvin, who exudes a certain Shirley MacLaine-like youthful spunk, a chance to deliver a unusually nuanced and moving performance for the adult genre.
Showing between the two features is a more frantic example of low-low budget cinema, the Canadian gory gonzo epic, Things. Shot mainly on 8mm film stock in 1989, Andrew Jordan & Barry J. Gillis.forge a junior high-level tribute to favorites like The Evil Dead, Night of the Living Dead, and Cronenberg’s “body horror” classics. The plot revolves around a trio of charisma-free guys who do battle with a flock of creatures created by a mad doctor’s maniacal artificial insemination. Karo syrup and butcher’s guts are splashed liberally, but we never lose sight of the fact that we’re watching a couple of goofy beer-drinking Canucks (the younger brothers of Bob & Doug McKenzie?) doing whatever they can to crack themselves up. Giving the film a dollop of prestige is 80s porn superstar Amber Lynn, fully-clothed throughout as the giant-haired starlet plays the least-believable TV news reporter ever on film. How amused you are will depend on your patience for irredeemable goofballs but like a great punk rock 45, Things‘ unschooled spirit has left the film a damned fine sight to behold 23 years later. — DAN BUSKIRK