His budgets were practically non-existent. His gritty production values were exacerbated by a 16mm camera with an unreliable viewfinder; no matter, he shot on throwaway film stock, anyway. He frequently used non-actors, sometimes hiring deli workers or young men he’d picked up. But despite such obstacles, Andy Milligan had to make movies. So driven to pursue his art that he reportedly would edit prints with his teeth, he nevertheless allowed his work to be distributed by a succession of shysters who ripped him off at every turn. Generations of moviegoers have looked at the very personal, idiosyncratic work of this pioneering gay filmmaker as no more than, to borrow the title of one of his lost films, gutter trash. For decades, Milligan, who died, destitute, in 1991, has regularly been counted among the world’s worst directors, his movies too unsettling to find favor even with the so-bad-it’s-good crowd. But his work deserves reassessment, and there is no better place to start than with Vinegar Syndrome’s recent restoration of Seeds, a 1968 descent into suburban, domestic hell,
The movie was one of several Milligan pictures to be shot in his Phelps Place house on Staten Island. The interior of the quasi-Victorian mongrel was splattered with a harsh black and white checkered wallpaper that intensified the emotional delirium. As the film opens, the eye-patched servant Mortimer (Jesse Bigelow, a non-actor who, according to Jimmy McDonough’s essential biography The Ghastly One, Milligan recruited from a Staten Island antiques shop) carries wheelchair-bound Claris (Maggie Rogers) down the home’s stately flights of stairs. From the start, Milligan immerses us in the unhealthy symbiosis of a depraved family, a low camera angle giving the impression that this embittered matriarch is being lowered into a circle of hell—and you are already there.
Claris lives with her daughter, Carol (Candy Hammond, another amateur), who proposes that, since she rarely sees her siblings, most of whom are estranged from their mother, they should invite all of them over for Christmas dinner. The expectation that their rich mother may soon die and leave them part of her fortune is enough incentive for the hateful clan to reunite, with disastrous, incestuous and finally homicidal results.
The fertile, poison ground of Seeds is fueled by Rogers, a Milligan regular who turns in a volcanic performance. Her only screen roles were in Milligan’s films, playing variations on the wicked crone, but she brings the intensity of Klaus Kinski to such fever-pitched dialogue as “I love you so much I could kill you!” The glee with which she cackles as she lights a hundred-dollar bill on fire is a spectacle at once hilarious and horrifying. Rogers was part of the Off-Off-Broadway scene where Milligan cut his teeth, starring in his production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, a show that makes one long for time-travel technology.
But even the non-actors in Seeds turn in effective performances. The role of Buster, a troubled teenager repeatedly thrown out of military schools for homosexual behavior, seems like a stand-in for the director, and is played with vulnerability by Gene Connelly, who looks like he could have walked out of one of the homo-erotic films of talking animal auteur David DeCoteau (one of Milligan’s champions). Hammond, whom Milligan briefly married in a strange fit of image control (as gay men were looked down upon in his milieu), has a strange innocence even as she rubs muscle magazines on her breasts. Her naiveté helps pull off the part of the catalyst for what turns into a serial killer movie; a better or hammier actress might have played up Carol’s manipulative streak, but for the most part Hammond seems guileless, which makes her fate that much more tragic. By the end of the movie, Carol is one of the few survivors, she and her brother (one of a number of siblings she seduced) regressing back to childhood, babbling nursery rhymes in a devastating scene of corrupted childhood.
Seeds was later rereleased as Seeds of Sin, which threw out crucial subplots with brother Matthew (Neil Flanagan), a priest who had molested the young Buster and carries on with his sister Barbara (uncredited Milligan regular Susan Cassidy). Worse, producers inserted softcore sex scenes scored to incongruously spirited stripper music, in contrast to the cheap melodramatic score Milligan favored. This was the only version of the film available for years, and while even that edit shows signs of dark genius, the director’s cut is a revelation. The more Milligan I watch, the more I’ve come to appreciate the swirling camerawork and abrupt editing that mark the unsettling signposts of an artist too much in a hurry to worry about such misguided concepts as perfection. The director’s impulses went against conventional cinematic taste so that, by all accounts, his movies may look like dreadful mistakes. But, more often than not, they’re the right mistake, every glitchy audio splice and claustrophobic composition striking off-notes in a deranged opera. He knew exactly what he was doing.