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Rediscover: The Ghastly Ones

Rediscover: The Ghastly Ones

Andy Milligan accomplished in the seedy underbelly of cinema a unique vision that would be impossible to recreate in the world of “good movies.”

Andy Milligan, who made over 30 films in his lifetime, would be on many critics’ list of the worst directors of all time. Yet filmmakers from talking-animal movie factory David DeCoteau to Nicholas Winding Refn have championed his work. His 1968 film The Ghastly Ones, which inspired the title of Jimmy McDonough’s highly entertaining 2001 biography of the director, is as good a place as any to start with this frustrating, primal Z-movie auteur. Crude exploitations that frequently reveal its director’s essentially sadistic view of human nature (don’t even ask what he thought of his mother), Milligan’s films are by the standards of mainstream cinema simply terrible. Yet they’re absolutely fascinating.

A number of his films are streaming in full on YouTube in overexposed, muddy transfers that amplify already poor production values. With titles like Blood! and The Rats Are Coming, the Werewolves Are Here!, these movies seem to promise a conventional grindhouse experience of cheap sets, bad actors and by-the-numbers genre conventions. While they don’t deliver on the pleasures of ordinary sleaze, something keeps you coming back for more. It took several films for Milligan’s aesthetic to click for me, and by then I was determined to watch as much of his work as possible (most of his late ‘60s exploitation films were destroyed by the distributor and are presumed lost). Most sensible cinephiles might consider these films unwatchable; but these films have a distinct personal vision, playing around the fringes of melodrama like a low-rent Fassbinder.

The first color film Milligan made, The Ghastly Ones was one of several projects vaguely set in Victorian times that were shot in and around the director’s very non-Victorian Staten Island home. The films make no attempt to disguise these mid-century locations, and the costumes Milligan designed (under the name Raffine, one of several pseudonyms he used for his various production roles) look like something out of a candy-colored Victorian fever dream.

The premise of The Ghastly Ones blends gothic horror with a distinctly Milligan flavor. After the death of their father, three sisters are set to inherit the family fortune. But the will comes with an unusual stipulation: The daughters, all of them married, are to spend three days with their husbands in the old family home, and fill it with “sexual harmony.” “The house must know married love for three days – a love it had never known from your mother and I.” Naturally that’s not what happens, as Milligan’s oeuvre repeatedly plays out his own bitter history of destructive relationships.

These kinds of interactions go back to Milligan’s work in theater. Milligan honed his craft as it were in the experimental theatre scene of New York in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. His experiences here drew out his strengths and weaknesses. While claims of incompetence can certainly be made against his strange fashion sense and composition (thanks in part to the director favoring a 16mm Auricon with a notoriously unreliable viewfinder), he deserves more credit for getting raw performances out of semi-professional actors. Yet while Mulligan directed productions of Shaw and Wilde, he was also drawn to the kind of lurid stage material that would get only more lurid when he moved to film.

Out of this scene came his first film, “Vapors” (1965), a 22-minute short scripted by Hope Stansbury, a future regular in Milligan’s films who was then a waitress at the Greenwich Village theatre where the director began to make his mark. “Vapors” was set among the denizens of a gay bathhouse in New York’s East Village, focusing on the conversation of a bathhouse regular and a married man who is visiting the establishment for the first time. Filmed in stark black and white, the film depicts a desperate and sad milieu. It was one of the few times Milligan, who was gay, explicitly tackled gay material, but you can see his entire career writ large in the strangely charged chaos of this short.

As the unhappily married couples in The Ghastly Ones attempt to earn their inheritance, one pair is interrupted mid-dalliance, much like the central pair in “Vapors” by a group of bathhouse patrons. Milligan’s signature touches are all over the film: the disfigured, homicidal simpleton who’s kept locked away in a room; the evil matriarch; the swirling camera; and the strangest, most toxic of human interactions. The director was infamous for punishing his actors, pushing them emotionally (reminding an older actress, despite her pleas, about the fatal car crash that killed her husband) and physically (the actor playing the homicidal simpleton was forced to gnaw at a rabbit carcass that had begun to turn rancid).

With as unpleasant as all this sounds, why would anyone want to watch these movies? Why did Milligan have a cadre of regulars who would work with him on and off for years? It’s a mystery that I can’t entirely explain. And a single movie like The Ghastly Ones may not convince you that it’s worth it. Yet despite their inherent problems, Milligan’s films are addictive, much as he was addicted to making movies despite the vagaries of shady distributors and troubled productions. He died of AIDS in 1991 and was reportedly buried in a pauper’s grave. Andy Milligan’s work will never be part of the established canon, and with good reason. But what he accomplished in the seedy underbelly of cinema had a unique vision that would be impossible to recreate in the world of “good movies.” His movies can be difficult to watch, but they are in their own strange way rewarding.

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