Sunday, April 18, 2010

Andy Milligan- An Appreciation

I'm guessing the vast majority of you haven't heard of Andy Milligan. And unless you are a fan of really bad horror films I would make a bet that even if you know his films you probably don't like them. They are to cinema what dirt roads are to paved road. They are rough and tumble and jagged and anachronistic and badly acted and a many other things, few of them "good". They are also not with out a certain amount of charm.

I'm going to be painfully honest I'm not a fan of Milligan's movies. I own a number of them but they are not something I watch with any regularity. I am on the other hand a great admirer of the man, of the artist. He was a man who made movies because he had to, there was a driving passion to create, unfortunately there was a gulf between what he did on film and what he was really capable of.

What he was capable of was to help start what we know of as Off and Off Off Broadway. He was one of those in the Cafe Cino just off Bleaker Street in the late 50's and early 60's when many of the icons (Sam Shepherd among others) of the Off Broadway theater were getting their start by putting on plays in violation of certain New York City ordinences. Milligan's stage work, was as best as I can find out, actually quite good. He has a knack for staging shows that were very much alive.

Unfortunately for Milligan he had the opportunity to start making films with the result he moved away from theater and into the realm of low rent, low budget cinema. Based on what I've read it was probably a bad move, but at the time it seemed like a big break.

(I'm not going to go into Milligans life, however I will strongly suggest that you all run out and get yourself a copy of The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan by JimmyMcDonough. Its not only a wonderful bio of Milligan, its also a fantastic look at exploitation film in the 50's 60's and 70's plus a wonderful look at the Off Off Broadway scene. I have to be honest here and say the best part of the book is the fact that Milligan- who could be a jerk- disappears for vast chunks of the story and the story suddenly is about these other wondeful things. It is one of the best books on film I've ever read. And there is no reason not to get it when Amazon e-sellers are selling it for under a buck)

Andy Milligan was most definitely a a New York filmmaker. He originally lived in the Village working in a dress shop by day and doing his plays and movies on the side. He then moved his filmmaking operation to Staten Island, I would guess because the location was full of the natural locations his stories needed and it was only a ferry ride from Manhattan.

He was a one man film crew, writing directing and editing (his prefered method of editing his films was to tear the film with his teeth) all by himself. He worked on the cheap and as several of his regular actors commented, the more money he got from producers the cheaper his films looked. No one was sure where the extra money went.

Most of Milligan's films have certain look. The framing is cramped and the sound is odd. This is the result of Milligan shooting with a fixed focus camera. This limited what he could do, so people often huddle together in the center of a frame. No one knows why Milligan didn't go for better equipment but then again with Andy no one knew why he did a good many things.

I'm not going to run through Milligan's entire film catalog, partly because I don't know many of his early films and partly because I don't know if many even exist any more. What I'm going to do is mention a few films you may want to try by putting in your Netflix cue.(I've starred the best films)

*VAPORS (1965) was Milligan's first film and probably his best. Its the story of a man in a bathhouse verbally sparring with the other men. Our hero is closeted, he isn't fully admitting why he's there. Men come and go. There is a strong sense of longing as he tries to connect with the people there. Its a very good film that completely unlike what followed, at least as far as what survives. Its supposedly closer to what Milligan was doing on stage than anything else and a real indicator that the man had talent.

GHASTLY ONES (1968) Milligan period piece about murders for an inheritance. Shot in that tight Milligan style where people seem to hug each other so they remain in frame. This is a dreadful movie that has a certain amount of brain dead charm. Its a movie in the "I can't believe they actually released this" sort of way. Again as with most Milligan films, it's little more than a home movie (stuff I shot looked like this and I couldn't release it). This is the sort of thing only masochists and bad movie lovers dare watch.

SEEDS (OF SIN) (1968) Dysfunctional family goes home for the holidays and murder and mayhem result. Violent sexy Milligan at his most home made. This is a trip into depravity 1960's style. Notable for the copious nudity and sex this film is neither sexy nor gruesome, playing now more as quaint.

*GURU THE MAD MONK (1970)- Story of a Monk who runs a prison who kills anyone he feels has slighted him or is putting him in danger. Typical representation of Milligan's films with wild characters doing wild things, garbed in obvious costumes and walking around sets (real locations) full of anachronistic stuff. This is a good place to start viewing his films.

*BLOOD THIRSTY BUTCHERS (1970) Milligans take on Sweeney Todd is a cramped retelling of the story. Not quite one of the worst films ever made, it does have a certain amount of charm. Definitely not one of the best movies ever made but enjoyable is an off quality sort of way.

*BODY BENEATH (1970) The best of Milligan's feature films I've seen. One of Milligans films from his stay in England, this movie actually is a good...okay...just...story of vampires and such trying to get new blood into their family. Technically competent which only has to survive the need to keep all of the actors in close huddle and some make up that would be too thick even on stage, this is a decent drama/thriller thats actually one of the few Milligan movies I can recommend on any level. Sure it dances the fine line around being a bad movie (and crosses over into that territory a few times) but its the sort of time killer you may actually watch to the end.

THE RATS ARE COMING! THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE! (1972)- Story is that Milligan's orginal cut of a werewolf film was too short so he went back and shot a side story about rats. Its a just okay story about a family of were wolves trying to remain hidden and one of their members trying to break the curse

TORTURE DUNGEON (1970)- A duke plots to kill off all the heirs to the throne so he can become king. Okay Milligan film is enjoyable because its so clearly a dress up party. People wander in and out of locations that are so not the time or place the story is happening as to make the film silly.

The films I've mentioned are all on DVD.Whether you choose to see them or not is up to you. Personally given the choice I'd probably read his biography again, then again his films do have a certain amount of insane charm.

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