Vapors (Andy Milligan, 1964), The Ghastly Ones (Andy Milligan, 1968), The Filthy Five (single reel) (Andy Milligan, 1968)
“I just couldn’t believe that they could be booked. They were the smallest pictures you could make… pictures that shouldn’t have seen the light of a theater.”
-Legendary indie exploitation distributor Sam Sherman
“Andy had a raw edge, more like a Bergman. He had a real feel for what he was doing.”
-noted actor Frederick (he of the iconic ‘Never get out of the boat!’ freak-out from Apocalypse Now) Forrest, who started his career slumming about in a mostly lost Milligan film, The Filthy Five
And so it begins (for moi). The Severin box-set of all things cinematically Milligan has finally arrived (all that’s still extant, anyway, with a bunch of his films lost forever, cast into the garbage bins of yesteryear by short-sighted indifferent distributors, wholly unaware there’d be a thing called Home Video – and, even better, boutique Blu-ray labels on the horizon, run by the likes of Severin, and Vinegar Syndrome, with their wide-eyed, obsessive execs willing to hand over a small fortune if need be to secure the rights)… and I’ve decided to drop all further cinematic commitments and delve right in.
Yes, I know, I claimed I was gonna do the same with Severin’s previously released equally insane box-set on another rogue, entirely under-the-radar malcontent filmmaker, Al Adamson, but as much as I genuinely adore the strange other-worldy vibe of the only film I’ve seen of his, Frankenstein vs. Dracula – a low-budget oddity I never tire of returning to as it as it almost seems to be calling directly to me with its bizarrely surreal aesthetic – the dawning reality that it was a commitment of 32 films (with likely many of them nowhere near as hypnotising as “FvD”) suddenly scared me off (temporarily, mind you – and nevertheless I still love having all his works up there on the shelves behind me, with the idea that I shall one day engage!)… while the Milligan commitment remains less daunting with only about half that number of films — even though I’ve decided to add in the concurrent readings of both Jimmy McDonough’s addictively trashy Milligan bio, The Ghastly Ones (which is where the quotes above are extracted from) and the 120-page booklet exploring the filmmaker’s work that comes with this garishly illustrated and lovingly-created (and as complete as possible, considering so many Milligan’s are lost) box set (on a director most people have either never heard of, or, if they have, think sucks — these Severin people are gloriously nuts, I tell ya) by Stephen Thrower, by far my favorite genre scribe, a writer who manages to remain engaging and unpretentious while impressively academic at the same time… while also being almost uncannily prolific, pumping out massive tomes, in which he’s usually lovingly delving into the most disreputable of genre figures (talk about the perfect guy for a dense Milligan booklet)…
While Severin’s set doesn’t catalogue the films in chronological order (or even alphabetical, so not really sure how they chose the order) I’m planning on hitting them in order of their release out into the world (or, more aptly, into the dark and grimy corners of the grindhouse cinemas).
“It’s like a hell for men… an insane asylum for homosexuals!”
-an anguished Thomas (Gerry Jacuzzo), decrying the lonely experience of the bathhouses
Milligan’s first film, Vapors was a bit of a surprise. I mean, that it takes place in a New York bathhouse, and is swimming with old-school underground queerness (where hags were hags and fags were fags, no apologies required or accepted) isn’t a surprise, nor is how one character details how much he despises his wife… no, the surprise is in how the two main characters are not constantly shrieking (or ‘theatrically over-emoting’), but are rather more quietly thoughtful.
The fact that its main setting is a bathhouse might have been a daring conceit for the time, leading the small little 16mm short to apparently make quite the splash in movie houses in the city (did I mention just how cool making movies must have been at that time?), but rather than an air of luridness, Milligan creates a sense of clinging sadness. By all accounts the tough-acting Milligan was more than a bit prurient in his views of homosexuality (he just hated mommy – a lot), and he certainly doesn’t reveal happiness, or community, or just the ice-cream thrill of some quick sex to be found within these bathhouses, but instead focuses on the loneliness and disconnectedness of his two main characters, both hiding or pretending to be someone else (matching I guess the forced game played by many a closeted homosexual) while a clique of flaming queers hovers outside the door looking to humiliate them (like they themselves likely are in the world outside these steamy hook-up joints).
Mostly a twenty minute meeting between the middle aged seemingly straight married Mr. Jaffee (Robert Dahdah) who desperately yearns for the young son who died in a terrible drowning accident (with some overt allusions to incestuous desire) and the younger Thomas on his first sojourn into a bathhouse (though pretending to Jaffee he’s a regular there), with the tittering queens hanging in the doorway annoying them, the crude filmmaking and tattered 16mm look of the film do it justice, adding to the creation of something real; something caught in the act.
The film’s infamous last shot, the one that apparently caused some furor, with a beefy new man entering Thomas’ private room for a hook-up, after Jaffee has quietly left, having had no sexual contact (perhaps not even having really sought any), back to the straight married life he likely belongs to though abhors, with Milligan’s camera eye now leeringly focused not on this mysterious man’s face (which we never see) but on his huge dangling shlong (covered in the Severin Blu-ray transfer by an awfully long optically-added black strip, apparently as many theaters covered it up rather than faced obscenity charges at the time) ends up not titillating, or outrageous… but instead as a reminder of the emptiness of the pursuit for it.
I’d argue Vapors is a gem in the catalogue of gay underground cinema of the time (okay, not that I’ve seen a lot – I did splurge for Vinegar Syndrome’s entire Wakefield Poole catalogue after reading an article written by Kier-la Janisse reviewing a documentary on the pioneering gay film director still-alive Poole who made a name for himself during the Golden Age of Porn in the 70’s, just haven’t gotten around to actually watching any of them).
The Ghastly Ones, however, right from its garish (Milligan’s first color film, and his third or fourth feature – with the previous ones alas lost likely forever), awkwardly-filmed prologue, with absurdly over-expressive, over-dressed young lovers prancing about in the back woods of Staten Island (with a colorful umbrella for some reason), before getting attacked and chopped to bits by a hunchbacked killer (Milligan regular Hal Borske, inexplicably forgetting his false fangs in this prologue, though he’s wearing them for the rest of the film) announces itself as entering much more familiar Milligan territory!
The Ghastly Ones
Taking at its core a familiar narrative trope of three sisters having to spend a single night in their recently passed father’s home in ‘sexual harmony’ with their mates in order to gain his inheritance (though why none of them question the validity of the entirely-dishevelled, gobs-of-hair-literally-coming-out-of-his-nose, strange-voiced lawyer who reads them the will is anyone’s guess), Milligan’s take descends into a night of perverse reveals and resentments, including rape (between partners!), emotional hysteria and (eventually, though it takes a bit of time getting there) some grizzly (if not exactly convincing… other than the occasional actual guts pulled from fake torsos) murder (of course the question why anyone continues to stay in the house and/or not go directly to the police is one of the massive plot holes one needs to overlook if you’re going to enjoy this film).
While I’ve seen a few of Milligan’s films over the years, in tattered-print VHS releases, I can’t say I even specifically remember which ones they were… but what I do remember is being drawn in by the level of hysteria, theatricality and just overall sense of perversity that hangs over the stagy, super-shrieky proceedings. Even with the low budget clumsiness, including hearing the odd-bit of off-camera Milligan’s direction (due to him, I’ve since learned, having used an Auricon, a 16mm camera absolutely not made to make movies with, considering it records the sound/dialogue within the camera, rather than separately), the director also manages a genuine sense of queer intimacy and certainly a consistent absurdist milieu. He should be given far more credit for his shot compositions… in fact, some of the close-ups capturing dual faces in ‘Ghastly” feel like they’re channelling Bergman (that is, if Bergman were in a constant rush, determined to allow only one take… but even that sense creates its own particular ‘Milliginian’ vibe) and some of his choreography (even when clearly orchestrated to keep things moving) occasionally startles with how effective it is (immediately coming to mind is the arrival of the brother of one of the husbands who, upon the wife’s departure from the room, immediately moves intimately close – too close for comfort — to his sibling, whispering of their secrets – likely incestuous — which Milligan perfectly captures with a kind of sudden, leeringly composed Bergman-like dual close-up).
The performers all over-act, but in a consistent manner. It’s as if they’re carrying over the performance pitch of barely-contained mania from when Milligan was directing most of them in his Off-Off-Broadway start at the infamous trendsetting queer-hangout Caffe Cino on the Lower East Side (Cornelia Street, to be exact, of which I embarked on a recent sojourn to discover an Indian Restaurant now in its place).
Milligan reminds me of the student filmmaker who grabs everyone’s attention with his level of commitment and determination (and what a special time in cinema in which that kind of filmmaker could find an outlet… if his vision was seedy enough for the Times Square grindhouses, that is… even though, as has been pointed out, his visions are oddly rather tame in their lurid quality – there’s only a few boob shots in “Ghastly” – though thankfully that includes those of hottie Milligan regular Anne Linden, not only the most physically delectable of the crowd, but also one of the better of the Milligan lot)… no, Milligan is much more interested in luridly exposing the cruelty found in human inter-relationships (with some freak-show gazing at crudely-rendered low-rent body disembowelments thrown in).
The Ghastly Ones
Along with copious commentaries (three!) for The Ghastly Ones and video interview extras, this disc out of the Severin package also includes a single reel of the missing film, The Filthy Five made around the same time (and it’s the one with Frederic Forrest, who when I first realized it was him, excitedly rang up Severin head David Gregory wondering how they possibly didn’t try to get a Forrest interview… to which the he responded, his voice dripping with mutual levels of annoyance and sarcasm from him and his team having spent an obviously massive chunk of recent life burrowing deep into Milligan ephemera to then be faced with some excited fanboy suddenly thinking they have the keenest of ideas, ‘gee, wish we had thought of that.’… turns out they couldn’t find the guy anywhere… ah, well… woulda been cool, though) and it’s another worthy surprise, perhaps the best of the three.
A young Frederic Forrest in his first role
From what I could gather, the film follows a boxer (Forrest) caught between two women, one a TV star and the other a stripper (though how that triangle works out to a ‘filthy five’ is anyone’s guess). With a few bouts of nudity and sex (though no gore), leading to a powerfully eye-opening scene of the boxer casually beating up the stripper (who yet stands strong against it) before receiving a phone call from his TV star and abruptly walking out to meet her, the black and white film has a decidedly Fassbinder vibe. Feeling like a mature work (certainly against The Ghastly Ones), it made me wish for the entire film. Alas, as with many a Milligan, it’s likely long gone. But there’s still plenty more in this set to move on to.
An excellent start to my Milligan retro!