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PRINT February 2019

film

A GORY TALE OF TERROR!

Andy Milligan, Guru, the Mad Monk, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 56 minutes 30 seconds.

“CAN A GENIUS BE UNTALENTED, TOO?” This, for John Waters, is the vital question posed by the films of Andy Milligan, the director behind a prolific streak of distinctively seedy exploitation vehicles. Over the past several years, a number of works by Milligan, the “Fassbinder of Forty-Second Street,” have come back into circulation via home-video distributors specializing in outré offerings—BFI Flipside, Vinegar Syndrome, and, most recently, the American Genre Film Archive, which has just released hi-res scans of Guru, the Mad Monk (1970) and Fleshpot on 42nd St. (1973). Preservation initiatives such as AGFA’s have a special urgency, since the idioms in which they traffic—skin flicks, sci-fi curios, spaghetti westerns, kung fu pictures—often have no stewards to consider their posterity. As for Milligan, he died, penniless, of AIDS-related complications in 1991, and many of his early features (among them The Promiscuous Sex [1967]; The Naked Witch aka The Naked Temptress [1967]; Depraved! [1967]; The Filthy Five [1968]; and Gutter Trash [1969]) have been lost altogether. The electric-green tramlines that periodically whip through these two latest AGFA titles, remastered from the best available elements, are a poignant reminder of the parent material’s neglect, while also maintaining a kind of fidelity to the films’ original context, the stained-seat theaters of Times Square, where prints often bore the scars of relentless, repeated projection.

In Milligan’s world, each moment of tenderness is invariably equipoised by a flash of malice; for every loving embrace, there’s a blade slipped suddenly between the ribs.

Milligan’s career began, improbably, Off-Off-Broadway; his 1961 stagings of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch and The Maids at Caffe Cino, with their throbbing eroticism and not-always-simulated violence, were legendary, and in 1962 he helped Ellen Stewart open La MaMa, which she had founded the previous year, by helming its first production, a version of Tennessee Williams’s “One Arm,” a provocative 1948 story about a sailor who takes to hustling after losing a limb. It was through Cino fixture Hope Stansbury (whose morbid thrift-store glamour, it’s been claimed, was the model for Candy Darling’s look) that Milligan would make his first foray into moviemaking. Vapors (1965), based on a script by Stansbury, is a fascinating pre-Stonewall artifact that revolves around two strangers meeting in a gay bathhouse. Their chaste, confessional encounter transpires in a graffiti-covered room, punctuated by the nosy intrusions of cackling queens who dish out barbed one-liners in the pansy argot of the day. An underground hit—sharing bills with Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) and Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), enjoying a run at Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque—Vapors and its taboo subject matter caught the eye of sleaze-trade entrepreneurs, and fared equally well on the grindhouse circuit.

Andy Milligan, Seeds, 1968, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 84 minutes. Claris Manning (Maggie Rogers).

Vapors, however, wasn’t echt Milligan; Stansbury’s collaboration added a note of touching humanism that belied the unflagging misanthropy that would characterize both his filmography and his notoriously corrosive personality. In Milligan’s world, each moment of tenderness is invariably equipoised by a flash of malice; for every loving embrace, there’s a blade slipped suddenly between the ribs. It was on the Deuce that Milligan found his true home, the ideal venue for his spite-fueled dramas. Seeds, aka Seeds of Sin (1968), shot in Milligan’s Victorian manse on Staten Island, is more typical, centering on an ill-fated Christmas gathering of family members who despise one another. Like Enrique Riveros in Jean Cocteau’s Le sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930), the viewer moves from room to room, privy, in each instance, to a little soft-core rolling around as well as some fresh revelation—of incest, of boarding-school arson, of masochistic longing. One by one, the treacherous lot are killed off by way of bathtub electrocution, acid to the face, and—that enduring classic—a hearty push down the stairs. Seeds announced Milligan’s sensibility, a swinging concupiscence mingled with Grand Guignol bloodlust and generalized hysteria. This sordid outlook, in turn, found a fitting platform in his microbudget style: a combination of professionals and nonactors; cramped, airless framing; dime-store mise-en-scène; and an austere, two-track sound design, occasionally featuring his Auricon (also Warhol’s camera of choice) whirring softly in the background.

Andy Milligan, The Body Beneath, 1970, 16 mm, color, sound, 85 minutes.

Fleshpot, like Seeds, was made for the sexploitation market, following one Dusty Cole as she turns tricks in the very neighborhood where the film would later be screened. (The opening shot, as historian Michael Bowen put it, is a “john’s-eye-view,” lensed from a car cruising Forty-Second Street.) Men, oblivious captives to their obvious desires, prove easy marks for Dusty, a woman blessed with the gift of grift, but a chance meeting with an outer-borough gentleman, who wanders, unknowingly, into a fag bar, raises the prospect of going legit. One of Milligan’s most memorable efforts, Fleshpot is remarkable in that it sports as much sex-worker shoptalk as actual sex. “It’s getting so you can’t suck a cock in this town without some cop looking over your shoulder,” a drag queen breezily laments, adjusting her “Harlow-beige” wig. The Great White Way was changing. When it debuted, Fleshpot was already an anachronism, a genre outing of a kind that was rapidly disappearing in favor of hard-core productions such as Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, which had premiered the year before in the wake of shifting censorship laws.

Andy Milligan, Bloodthirsty Butchers, 1970, 16 mm, color, sound, 85 minutes.

Porno chic was ascendant, but Milligan had already begun burrowing into horror. The gory spectaculars of this period are the films on which his later reputation as a cult director would largely rest, and there are some episodes of inspired, if not exactly convincing, carnage to be found. Consider the scene in Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970), his low-rent riff on Sweeney Todd, in which  a neighborhood busybody slices into a savory pie to reveal a single rubber boob nestled perfectly within the crust, or the subterranean vampire feast in The Body Beneath (1970), which plays like a cross between a Cockettes performance and a black mass conducted by Kenneth Anger. Guru, a fabulously shabby medieval period piece, concerns a sadistic priest with a split personality who oversees a house of worship in the fictional province of Mortavia; his church doubles handily as a prison and execution chamber, making it a one-stop dumping ground for Middle Europe’s “undesirables.” Milligan hated the finished product, regarding it as his worst film, yet it manages to squeeze an astonishing amount of steeple-fingered scheming, ghoulish wit, and outlandish mayhem into its just-shy-of-an-hour run time.

The discrepancy between what is advertised and what is actually delivered is one of exploitation cinema’s most emblematic qualities. The posters promise a universe of unthinkable sensation—WILDER THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE! EXPLICIT BEYOND BELIEF!—yet the reality of the grindhouse experience is, more often that not, rather less thrilling than its marketing campaigns would suggest. Exceptions, of course, may be found in the genre’s true auteurs, many of whom (e.g., Doris Wishman) are represented in AGFA’s impressive and expanding catalogue. The example of Milligan is more complicated  because though his films are virtually never as steamy or shocking as their taglines, they are in other ways far stranger than anything else in the genre. A genuine malevolence seeps through every frame like a poison cloud. Scenarios of cruelty and domination resurface over and over in compulsive repetition, a Freudian nightmare come to life. And the poverty of the films’ design serves only to amplify, rather than diminish, their effects. Indeed, a young Joe Dante, reviewing The Ghastly Ones (1968), gave a succinct evocation of the director’s entire oeuvre as well as a perfect compliment, even if it was almost definitely intended as the opposite, when he wrote that it “looks like a home movie from Bedlam and gives evidence of having been processed in a dirty bathtub.” Ours is a recuperative moment, an era of revision wherein the wrongful omissions of cinema’s past might be written back in. Milligan, however, is not a lost master. He was, more precisely, a monster, in art as in life. An entry in film history’s canon may forever elude him, but it seems that he has now, at long last, secured a terrifying page in its bestiary.

Thomas Beard is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, and a Programmer at Large for the Film Society of Lincoln Center.