-from Andy Milliganís play "Cocteau,"
Andy Milligan did it all, and did it for nothing. In the late 60s, on budgets of $10,000 or less, he wrote his films, directed them, photographed them with his bulky, beloved hand-held camera. He designed and made most of the costumes. He edited his movies. Then he sold these pinchpenny epics to men who changed the titles - say, from "Liz" to "The Promiscuous Sex - and peddled them in New Yorkís 42nd Street grind-house district and in dozens of other tawdry midways and tacky drive-ins.
Did it for nothing? Perhaps even in posterity. For Milliganís delirious exploitation films with handles like "The Naked Witch," "Torture Dungeon," "Bloodthirsty Butchers" and "The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!" have achieved little post-mortem glamour. Even among his sexploitation brethren, his films lacked the purring elegance of Radley Metzgerís, the mad montage of Russ Meyerís, the sicko sureness of R.L. Frostís. They also lack the sense that their director loved watching women not surprising, when you learn that Milligan was a homosexual misogynist. With all the attention lavished these days on old movies that are "so bad theyíre good," Milliganís work is still considered (when itís considered at all) just plain bad. One problem is that nearly half of the 20 movies he made between 1967 and 1972 are lost. Another problem, some would say, is that the rest can be seen. These films are, well, bad, but in an unfashionable way: they list, or lurch, toward the classic Hollywood mainstream, not toward the giant exploitation-movie industry that Hollywood has become. The sad fact is that Milliganís films are neither bad enough to be cult classics nor competent enough to be anything else. First, with his gay underground film "Vapors," he was a failed Warhol (this Andy didnít get even 15 seconds of fame). Then a failed George Romero; there would be no out-of-nowhere "Night of the Living Dead" hit among Milliganís horror movies, which are more sedate and more disturbing. In the 70s he was a failed Gerard Damiano; since even Andyís soft-core movies were what producer Lew Mishkin called "sexless sex pictures," he could hardly feel comfortable shooting hard-core. And finally, in the late 80s, making impersonal movies for producers he hated, he hit bottom: he had become a failed Andy Milligan.
Unlike Ed Wood, the touchstone of cinematic incompetence, Milligan had no angora sweaters in his closet (and if he did, itís because he designed them; he didnít wear them). He had no Lugosi, Vampira or Tor Johnson in his troupe, just hard-luck New York and London actors who kept hoping against hope that Andy knew what he was doing. His films arenít bad-funny, in the easily-detectable Golden Turkey fashion; theyíre bad-peculiar. Woodís career inspired an excellent biography, Rudolph Greyís "Nightmare of Ecstasy," and a woozy biopic, Tim Burtonís hagiographic "Ed Wood"; Milligan would never earn the ainít-he-sweet brand recognition Wood has won among trashoholics. "And after putting the magnifying glass to Andyís tortured films and life," writes his biographer, Jimmy McDonough, "I doubt that casting will begin for the TV miniseries."
The Book on Andy
McDonough, a contributor to Sleazoid Express, Film Comment and other movie rags, is far too modest about "The Ghastly One: The Sex- Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan" (A Capella Press). What a movie it would make! What a book it already is! Obsessively researched, written with wit and vinegar, brimful of bizarre tales, unflinching of both its subject and its author and not a word too long this is a showbiz biography to place on the shelf with Nick Toschesí great "Dino." It turns Milligan, the awful auteur of my distant memory, into one of the most compelling directors Iíd never want to meet. It is also an anecdotal history of two important fringe cultures that Milligan inhabited: the off-off-Broadway ferment of the early 60s (as emblematized by Caffe Cino and La Mama), and the sexploitation sediment two miles uptown, on 42nd Street (ruled by "a pinky-ringed piranha named Bingo Brandt").
Indieprods and D-girls: youíll want to film this book just for the supporting cast. Thereís Gary Stone, who did sex scenes in Milligan movies and plays, and whose long-time lover was a Great Dane; he and the dog performed their act at uptown parties. Thereís Jonathan Torrey, the exterminating angel of Caffe Cino; heíd been raised in a wealthy Jewish family but often wore a Hitler Youth outfit. Thereís Frank Thompson, a Cornelia Street gallery owner and pedophile who, according to Cino set designer Joe Davies, "had every one of the youngsters who grew up on that block - and their fathers before them. Why he wasnít left for dead we never knew." Interviewed late in his life by McDonough, Thompson "cheerfully admitted to keeping adolescent jism samples in his fridge to add to his omelettes. ĎTwelve-year-old orgasms always improve the flavor,í he droned..." And, in a featured role, Dennis John Malvasi, an illiterate Vietnam vet (27th Marines) who became Andyís companion and, in the Milligan musical "Cinderella Ď85" played a singing mouse. "But yí know, lifeís theater to me. I really donít care where my stage is." This pyrotechnics expert earned the spotlight when he was fingered for four bombings of Manhattan abortion clinics as part of the rabidly pro-life religious group Our Lady of the Rose. He finally surrendered in 1987 after a televised plea by Cardinal OíConnor but not before this fugitive from the feds and the NYPD drove Milligan to California. "I learned my flowers," Malvasi told McDonough. "He showed me what a cow looked like." Still, he had to get back to New York: "I was more interested in blowiní up clinics."
And at the center of all this strangeness is the director himself: Midwest boy, Army brat, Navy vet, puppeteer for a childrenís theater, actor, director and, as the website Cinefear proclaims him, Staten Islandís Fantastic Faggot of Fear. "Andy Milliganís malevolent spirit burned brighter than any fire," McDonough writes in the bookís introduction. "May his flame singe you in the pages that follow." Oh, they will, because "The Ghastly Ones" is more than a biography. It plumbs the tangled intentions of any biographer: obsessive, skeptical, predatory, pecuniary. "For you itís an income - the ugly, insane," Milligan said of his life. "For other people itís painful." McDonough makes sure the book is true to its subject. Itís as painful as Milliganís films, as weirdly fascinating as his life and legacy.
What does an Andy Milligan movie look like? Like some mediocre 40s Hollywood drama, but louder and weirder. A film that begins with a physical assault and ends with an ominous smile at dawn. A plot about evil mom or dad and a brood of bitter children, usually including one who was misshapen and misunderstood. Two or three or six people sardined into the film frame, spitting out domestic venom itís astonishing that the psychic bad breath doesnít flatten them all.
Lots of talky tableaux, necessitated by Milliganís use of a l6mm, direct-sound Auricon camera. (Reaction shots? We donít need no stinkiní reaction shots). Harsh lighting that makes the actors less attractive. A busy, semi-symphonic score pulled off a public-domain LP. And no optical effects, except for fade-ins and -outs done in the camera while shooting.
Prowling around his actors with his Auricon albatross, or pushing it literally in their faces, Milligan created movies with the feel and thrill of the first rickety silent pictures. Sexploitation director Simon Nuchtern ("The Girl Grabbers," "New York Nights") watched Andy at work and said, "The way he made films was classic 1910." Milliganís editing process was no less primitive: "hastily screening the dailies, ripping the slate footage off the head of his selected takes (often with his teeth), taping the shots to a wall without marking them, then slapping all the takes together."
The one thing an exploitation film distributor demanded from a young director was a little nudity. (Thatís how Martin Scorsese got started, with "Whoís That Knocking at My Door?") But Andy ever the rebel, oddly the puritan found it hard to oblige. The sex scenes are demure, almost perfunctory, as if Milligan were both wearily acknowledging a quota and desperately driven to subvert it. The first lovemaking scene from "The Rats Are Coming!" in which Milligan devotes more time to the soles of Jackie Skarvellisí feet than any other part of her anatomy, is perhaps the most listless in exploitation history; it would amount to necrophilia if either partner looked alive. And when couples do start smooching or snogging, they usually get interrupted partly because Milligan throws so many prying characters into the cage of his film frame.
Naughty, Gaudy, Bawdy Andy
You need to imagine this sexual lassitude in the context of a 42nd Street flea-pit in the late Ď60s. I can; I was there, a Columbia film student scouring Manhattan neighborhoods (Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, the Museum of Modern Art) for movies, movies, movies. 42nd Street was where you could see two new films for a thrifty 75 cents. One theater even showed arty movies and so much more. As Milligan recalled, "The Apollo Theatre was the only place you got to see foreign films... It was (also) a notorious makeout place. The balcony and the john. Y' know - if you didn't go there for one, you went for the other." I know, at least vicariously, whereof he speaks. In 1966 I saw John Gielgud, walking ahead of me past the Apollo candy stand, exchange glances with a dishy young loiterer and follow him up to the balcony.
McDonough got to the Deuce, as 42nd Street is known, a decade after I did, but the scene was pretty much the same: "It was, I have to say, heavenly. Three Big Hits all day, nearly all night. More than a dozen theaters flickering away, some with multiple screens. You could spend all night bouncing from grindhouse to grindhouse like a human pinball, gorging yourself on all manner of low/big- budget crap. And the audience was right there in the trenches with you every frame of the way." The crowds offered more entertainment than the movies, and often more action. In 1969 my bride and I went to the Times Square Movie House to see Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West." About 20 minutes into the film, a duplex shouting match arose between customers in the balcony and the orchestra. When the upstairs debater threw a bottle at the downstairs debater, we departed.
And speaking of mass debating... the gents who patronized Bingo Brandt's Rialto and Bryant Theatres in the 60s were not a sociable lot. With an intensity that surpassed scholarship, they watched the movie for the sight of some heaving flesh, in the hope it would provide them some vagrant solitary pleasure. In the porno era, things got more communal. McDonough reports on a downtown sex house, The Metropolitan, "a cavernous, ancient ex-vaudeville hall where customers searching for strange flesh skulked through a dark, Lysol-doused passageway hidden behind a flickering screen of endless porno. Patrons dumb enough to just be sitting there watching the movie had to be wary of fallout from men masturbating in the balcony."
It was on a 42nd Street field trip in 1967 that I first saw Milligan's movies. I confess I don't remember much about them, or even which ones I saw. I just know I thought they were unrelentingly, uninterestingly amateurish. And teasingly, almost defiantly sexless. When Milligan's debut film "The Promiscuous Sex" opened nearby, a friend of the star recalled that "all the old dudes who came to the World could find nothing to jerk off to." With the wisdom gleaned from McDonough's book, I now realize that this was pure Andy. He was going to make movies his way; and if distributors misrepresented them as sex films, that was their lie, not his. His movies were about insurrections, not erections.
Take (please) Milligan's 1968 anti-classic, "The Ghastly Ones." The film's trailer promises lurid pleasures: "The mad killer who loves to eat meat live meat... It will be the stomach shocker of your life." The film does have a scene of a hunchback gnawing on a dead rabbit, which later shows up under bed covers (this four years before Francis Coppola pulled the same stunt, with a horse). But "The Ghastly Ones" is more like Edith Wharton meets Ed Wood: set among the gentry 19th century New York, it's a drab, shrill old-dark- house thriller, where the nudity is only peek-a-boo and the violence is mainly folks shouting. As Sam Sherman, who devised the film's title and ad lines, said: "I thought truth in advertising wouldn't be bad because the picture really was ghastly, so I called it `The Ghastly Ones.'"
The critics, those who bothered to see the film, agreed. But this is, after all, the movie McDonough has chosen to name his book after (he might as aptly have picked "Depraved!", "The Degenerates" or "Guru the Mad Monk"), so he's obliged to make a case for it. Here goes: "Like a tasteless splatter of kiddie spin-art from the state fair, `The Ghastly Ones' is a test for the eyeballs, with a psychedelic title sequence, laughable gore effects, and sets and costumes that are outrageously garish." He writes that lead villain Maggie Rogers "had a spectacular mug craggy and angular, like the constipated face of a dried apple or a jack-o'-lantern left out in the sun... Her amped-up delivery put Andy's `I hate Mommy' across with particular gusto." Gusto: the very word for McDonough's prose.
He also gives beaucoup behind-the-scenes backstory. Hal Borske, as Colin the sensitive hunchback, was obliged to chew on a dead rabbit. "I was really gagging...a mouthful of blood." One sequence, in which Colin (now not so sensitive) kills two lovers, was shot on a Staten Island location far from the director's home. This being a no-budget movie, there was also no transportation. Said Borske: "Here I am full of blood with a meat cleaver, and we're walkin' home to Andy's house!" McDonough's mix of evocative reviewing and sharp reporting may not make you want to see "The Ghastly Ones" and, honestly, if you skip it you'll somehow survive but I bet he'll make you want to read more about it, and about the ghastly, depraved, degenerate mad monk who made it.
Milligan came to New York to be an actor, and appeared in Jose Quintero's acclaimed production of "The Girl on the Via Flamina." "If I had stuck to acting, I'd probably have a star on Hollywood Boulevard," he told McDonough. But he didn't have what anyone mistook for star quality. One reviewer said that Milligan "resembled the rear end of a dead rabbit hanging upside down in a 9th Avenue butcher shop." (Andy also claimed that his burgeoning career in live TV was wrecked by malicious gossip spread by the young James Dean.) So he opened the Ad Lib dress shop down on West Fourth Street, called himself Raffinť he'd later use that nom-de-plumage for the costume design on almost all his films and then, in 1960, slipped into the profession of making other actors miserable. Andy called it "directing."
The lab for his mad-artist experiments was the Caffe Cino, a Cornelia Street bar that the owner, Joe Cino, had just expanded into a no- rules theater. "If Broadway was the symphony," McDonough writes, "the Caffe Cino was garage rock." Its biggest hit was the musical "Dames at Sea," with the young Bernadette Peters, but the Cino is remembered as the nurturer of New York's experimental theater. "You must understand that there was no off-off-Broadway movement there was Joe Cino," says playwright Robert Patrick. "Without Joe, nothing that is interesting in American theater would have happened." Among the Cino's grads were playwrights Lanford Wilson, John Guare, Tom Eyen, Jean-Claude Van Italie and William Hoffman, and directors Marshall Mason, Tom O'Horgan ... and Andy Milligan.
At the Cino, Milligan made a noise with stagings of Tennessee Williams' "One Arm," Eugene O'Neill's "Before Breakfast" and Fernando Arrabal's "The Two Executioners." His arrival there, says lighting designer Johnny Dodd, "set a standard for how far you can go which was nearly killing people!" In his take on Lord Dunsany's "The Glittering Gates," Neil Flanagan is to flog a boy (Bobby Siefkert), and Cino vet Robert Dahdah says, "That kid was beaten within an inch of his life." The Milligan version of Jean Genet's "The Maids" "made people leave the room, including me," says Dodd. "They were really beating each other up, like for real." This was the intellectual equivalent of pro wrestling, and it brought in the uptown crowd. Milligan said that Jerome Robbins came "every night" to his production of Genet's "Deathwatch."
Also studying his Cino style was a budding impresario. In 1961 Ellen Stewart opened her own off-off theater, Cafe La Mama, and hired Milligan to direct the first five productions, all Cino exports. Actually, he did much more. "Andy was the La Mama director without him we probably wouldn't have gotten started," said playwright Paul Foster. "Andy knew instantly we didn't know what we were doing and said, `Don't get in my way while I fix this place into a theater.'" Cino and La Mama would later win fistfuls of Obies, but by then Milligan had spun out of the avant-garde picture, and into his off-guard pictures.
Caffe Cino soon hit its own spin-cycle of depravity. Joe Cino, ever the sucker for a certain kind of bad boy, hooked up with Torrey, who would be suspected of torching the place during the run of Van Italie's "War." "Others were trying to stave off their self-destruction by destroying people ahead of them," Patrick told McDonough. "Pushing people into the pit, trying to guess what was in it before they fell in themselves." In 1966, Warhol's "superstars" invaded the Cino and made it an even more severe theater of cruelty. The following year, Torrey died, and a despairing Cino eviscerated himself with a kitchen knife, dying of peritonitis three days later.
Milligan never abandoned the theater, though it soon gave up on him. Two 1963 productions "Mrs Warren's Profession," starring Abe Vigoda, and "The Picture of Dorian Gray," with Jay Robertson, the eccentric Hollywood actor best known as Caligula in "The Robe" were panned by critics. In 1971, at a 14th Street porn house called The Jewel, he put on his own play "Section 8," a queer drama set in a San Diego Navy barracks. (Stone, whose penis figured prominently in Milligan's 1965 short film "Vapors," would masturbate onstage each night, but only for the second of the two shows.) Milligan presented another original there, "Cocteau," with some of his ripest dialogue and sourest reviews yet.
In the Ď70s, in the most isolated backwater of New York City (Milligan's Island was, kookily enough, Staten!), he set up yet another troupe it says a lot about the faith and gullibility of actors that, no matter how low Andy sank, he could also attract a new corps of followers. They performed in a bar, a restaurant, a Boy Scout meeting hall, a church basement in remotest Tottenville, playing to ever smaller numbers of flummoxed locals. Back in Manhattan in the 80s, he bought a decayed building on West 39th Street, set up two 40-seat rooms and put on even more egregious flops: Ibsen's "Ghosts" and "A Doll's House," his own "The Bitch." Milligan lived on the fourth floor of this hell hole, surrounded by "a TV set full of bullet holes and an endless stream of stray cats." Said Stone: "He loved his cat more than people. People really annoyed him."
Candy and Andy
McDonough often compares Milligan to German wunderkind R.W. Fassbinder. All right, Fassbinder's films were great, and Andy's sort of stank, but still... In this period they both made tons of movies, usually psychodramas so daftly intense they could be taken for comedies. And like Fassbinder, Milligan was a homosexual director who married one of his leading ladies. The lucky girl was Hammond, a North Carolina tomboy who took no crap from anyone. Milligan may have enjoyed giving pain to anonymous men in abandoned trucks one suspects that he didn't have sex, he had violence but Hammond would have none of that. "If Andy had ever done any of that to me," she pertly snapped to McDonough, "I woulda cut his nuts off and stuffed em down his throat."
In the 60s, few gay directors were uncloseted fewer in the hetero-sex skin biz. So he proposed because, Hammond said, "He had decided in his line of business a wife was an asset." (Andy told his producer, Allen Bazzini, that "íThis is only for the press.í" Barzini recounted. "I said, `What press...?' I mean, this is not Cecil B. De Mille.") And Candy accepted because she'd just had a fight with her boyfriend Steve. Milligan stitched together Candy's wedding dress (and matching hat with fake fruit) on the morning of the event, which took place on the set of "Seeds," at the end of the day's shooting. He directed the Candy-Andy ceremony with his usual vigor: the whole thing took 10 minutes.
On Candy's way up the aisle, admiring well-wishers stuffed paper slips with their phone numbers in her cleavage. In a plot twist cuter than any in a Milligan film, ex-boyfriend Steve gave the bride away. "All the way down the stairs," Candy recalled, "he kept whispering, `The car is right outside we can walk straight through the crowd, out the door and proceed to Europe.'" Actually, Candy did sail to Europe, on the old Queen Elizabeth, but by herself. Milligan celebrated the wedding night on his own, at a gay bar. Besides, he was too busy for a honeymoon. "What honeymoon?" he asked rhetorically. "We have to make a movie!"
Andy's movie career is inextricably, almost sadomasochistically bound with two skin-pic pashas: William Mishkin (the king of crapsploitation), who produced about a dozen prime Milligans, and his son Lew (the idiot prince). Both Mishkins drove Milligan nuts by changing his films and short-changing him on deals. But father and son had one crucial philosophical difference. As Straw Weisman, who worked for both Mishkins, put it: "Will wanted to make and sell movies, Lew wanted to make and deposit money." Lew didn't even look at the movies he promoted, saying, "How could I sell this stuff if I watched it?" In the 70s, tired of springing for storage payments, Lew destroyed all known prints and negatives of the films he and his father had produced as if they were old boxes of Corn Flakes, too stale to sell, too junky to save.
In this chorus of impresarial abuse, Milligan may have heard an echo of his early years: of the mother who brutalized him, and the father who refuse to take responsibility among other sins McDonough uncovers. According to the book's aptly lurid jacket copy, "The sick secrets revealed here will shock even hardcore grindhouse fans," and for once the steak lives up to the sizzle. We won't say what dank data McDonough finally unearthed, except to note that the tag line for Milligan's "Seeds" "Sown in Incest! Harvested in Hate!" may have applied just as fully to his life and art.
We learn that Andy was born (in St. Paul, Minn., 1928) with his hands already in fists; medics had to pry his fingers apart, damaging a pinky on one hand. As actor John Miranda observed: "Andy was born angry." He was also bred angry. So he took out his rage on the characters he created and the actors who played them. The Milligan gallery is teeming with gargoyles: evil parents who school their children all too well in the lessons of misery and malevolence; women on the make, for whom violent death is an Old Testament God's righteous vengeance; weak men, deformed from birth. "I hate everything and everybody," says Mortimer Mooney, lycanthrope at large in "The Rats Are Coming!" "It's just one big hate." Put these words in Milligan's mouth, and it sounds like a primal scream.
A psychosexual sadist off the set, Milligan was somewhere between Svengali and Saddam when directing actors. He would impatiently tell them, "Just do it, babe!" (Everyone was "babe" to Andy.) With women he might be a bit more urgent: "You're an actress, fuckin' do somethin'." This was the Milligan Touch. "The only way to get a woman to be a fine actress," he told McDonough, "is to get her into tears. You actually have to crush her, slap her around mentally so that she opens up." This sense of discipline extended to the entire shoot. "I never had drugs or drink ever on my set," he said. "You're not allowed to have a beer at lunchtime. You're not doing that stuff you're portraying it. You're either a pro or not a pro. Hell hath no fury like Andy Milligan." No question: the man had a talent to abuse.
He made no apologies for his tactics. "Artists are nasty. When I'm working I'm a monster and I know that but it's the only way you can get it done for that money. Low budget means you can't do it again." But being a meanie wasn't just about the film. "The man can do anything," said Hammond. "I mean he's a carpenter, he can wire, he can decorate, he can upholster furniture. Unfortunately, he doesn't think that anyone else can do anything." Milligan never lost the belief, essential to any delusional endeavor, that he was up there with the big guys not De Mille but Dostoevsky, the artist with the roiling psyche.
So he made autobiography disguised as genre movies; the topics might be Jekyll and Hyde ("The Man With Two Heads") or vampires ("The Body Beneath"), but the films were self-portraits. At least, that's the talk he talked: "There's evil to every artist. It's almost Jekyll and Hyde... The better the artist, the more he's devil and angel." And: "I think all artists are part vampire, really. You have to be. You cannot re-create, you must procreate.... You take from other things, ideas you've read... and it all comes out when you're writing. I call it a cerebral bowel movement. Every fingertip's an asshole. You can't be a writer unless you go naked on paper.... You've gotta let yourself bleed. You have to pick the emotional scar tissue. After a while you run out of blood."
Milligan ran out of blood in 1992, when he died of AIDS symptoms after a long, humiliating illness. McDonough was often there, visiting him at the hospital, feeding him, wiping his incontinent bum. In the sickbed, Milligan was still the imperious director, scolding visitors for talking too loud, ragging the staff. By now it wasn't art but was it ever? A glance today at seven available Milligan films hasn't quite made me an Andy acolyte. To me he's still a man with the fiery temperament of an artist but the talent and luck of a failed hack. I will go this far... Some of the actors are lovely (Carol Vogel in "The Ghastly Ones"), some unaccountably deft (Annabella Wood in Milligan's Sweeney Todd film "Bloodthirsty Butchers"). One film ("The Rats Are Coming!") I seem to think more highly of than McDonough does. And "Fleshpot on 42nd Street," Milligan's semi-porno semi- documentary on the Deuce, has a grittiness that makes me nostalgic for the dirty, pre-Disney Times Square. The films, I think, must be seen through the McDonough prism, as the Stations of the Milligan Cross bloodstained evidence of the pain Andy suffered from birth and dished out till his death.
The evidence is everywhere in a Milligan movie. All unhappy families are alike: bickering, simmering, forging uneasy, shifting alliances. In "The Body Beneath" and "The Rats Are Coming!" the heads of deranged family seeks to extend their line, spreading a blood disease, breeding their contagion. It was as if Milligan believe the human race programmed for pestilence by its dependence on the family unit as spawner and nurturer of the young. This is a vision as misanthropic as it is, oddly, compassionate for Milligan was one of those depraved, degenerate, desperate, damned. He escaped his unhappy family in Minnesota only to create others at Caffe Cino, in the Mishkin films and on Staten Island. It can be little comfort to McDonough, and less to Milligan, that a director's misery was the inspiration for a biographer's masterpiece. But, as Andy might have said to Jimmy, "Just do it, babe." The kid pulled it off, and finally gave Andy Milligan a work of art to be proud of.