TORTURE DUNGEON (1969, directed by Andy Milligan, 77 minutes U.S.)
BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS (1970, directed by Andy Milligan, 79 minutes, U.S./U.K.)
THE MAN WITH TWO HEADS (1972, directed by Andy Milligan, 80 minutes U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC One of the must perverse cinematic cults of film history gets a full bow this Friday at the International House when Exhumed Films presents a triple feature of the films of Staten Island auteur, Andy Milligan. Made on the stringiest of shoestring budgets, Milligan’s shrill little misanthropic films were produced to play to grindhouse audiences of the 1960s and 70s. The films, the majority of which are period-set horror pieces, seemed semi-baffling until his work was given context by the a pair of biographies written in the last decade, Rob Craig’s Gutter Auteur and Jimmy McDonough’s The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan.
These bios revealed Milligan was an army brat who grew up in a household dominated by his hateful, alcoholic mother. He escaped by touring with a kid’s puppet show, later enjoying a four-year stint in the Navy. Milligan ended up in NYC in the early sixties, staging a number of his own plays at the legendary off-off Broadway stage at Greenwich Village’s Cafe Cino. Milligan’s 1965 black and white short Vapors was a ground-breaking look at the gay bathhouse scene, which for a fleeting allowed his name to be bandied about in the same breath with experimental filmmaker Andy Warhol. That market proved limited though so Milligan instead found himself forced by economics into making lurid low-budget horror films he could sell to distributor William Mishkin. Inner-city theaters had a niche for softcore nudity and lurid blood-letting that Hollywood was hesitant to fill so Milligan went to work fast, churning out horror scripts that were reminiscent of films Karloff and Lugosi tirelessly made in the 1930s and ’40s, but filtered through the angry, nihilistic attitude that reportedly spewed from Milligan.
Most of Milligan’s films were made for less than $10,000, with Andy bringing his cast to his dilapidated Staten Island Victorian home and shooting them himself with his primitive 16mm wind-up camera. The costumes were always made cheaply by Andy (he even owned a dress shop for a spell, named “Raffiné”) the cast was composed of struggling NYC actors (and I do mean “struggling”) and the music was always the same scratchy public library-sourced score that sounded like it came from an early ’50s educational film. The stories themselves seemed from bubble up from Milligan’s unhealthy id: family secrets are spilled, secret sex lives are revealed and a religion-soaked damnation is delivered for the climax. And while a cheap shoddiness permeates his films there is no Ed Wood-style naiveté or self-delusion on the screen. Instead it is a sort of time-capsule fascination that is cast, as if we’ve been transported back to 1970 to watch some dank and disturbing dinner theater unfold.
As uniquely weird as Milligan’s films are, I was surprised by the enthusiastic reception for a recent Ex-Fest screening of his 1970 film The Body Beneath. Despite the film’s ragged production, Milligan knew how to evoke reactions out of an audience, lessons learned from his extensive work on the Cafe Cino’s tiny stage. The three films Friday, projected from exceedingly rare vintage 35mm prints, should also dazzle. First is Milligan’s first horror feature from 1969, Torture Dungeon, with barren stretches of Staten Island standing in for medieval England. Incest and hunchback-lovin’ are on the agenda as a ruthless royal ascends to the crown. Also on the bill are two films Milligan made during his brief stay in England; his 1970 re-telling of the Sweeney Todd story, Bloodthirsty Butchers, and his Jekyll and Hyde knock-off, The Man with Two Heads, from 1972. In 18 years of presenting oddball cinema around Philly, this may be Exhumed Films oddest bill yet, It will be interesting to see what sort of crowd turns out to give some love to one of cinema’s most unlovable filmmakers. Let the buyer be weird!