When preservationists cite alarming statistics about how many American commercial films are now considered “lost,” they often neglect to mention the overwhelming number of those titles were made pre-1920 — a period which, unfortunately, few modern moviegoers care about. Perhaps more startling is the fact that Staten Island auteur Andy Milligan cobbled together some 29 features between 1962-85 — and nearly half of those are already lost. Should anyone care? Well, yes … kinda. If art can accommodate all manners of expression, from Botticelli’s Venus to “Butt-Naked Guy Howling at the Wind,” then surely there is room at the table (somewhere near that guy) for Milligan’s singular exploitation-rant cinema.
Journalist Jimmy McDonough is uniquely qualified to chronicle this Staten Island no-budget auteur’s life and works, since he assisted on some of his last projects, and was one among precious few confederates still communicado when Milligan died of AIDS in 1991 at age 72. “The Ghastly One” strikes a useful balance between personal and dispassionate commentary, mostly leaning toward the latter — a good thing, since its subject needs little help in achieving pathos, horror, or the compulsive entertainment value of a major train wreck.
The product of a highly dysfunctional St. Paul, Minn., family, Milligan drifted through stints in the Navy, the fashion industry and the margins of showbiz before arriving around 1960 at Caffe Cino, the raw but influential New York underground theatre that jumpstarted the careers of Lanford Wilson, John Guare, Bernadette Peters and others.
Becoming one of its most prolific (if less celebrated) talents, Milligan commenced honing a personal style both on- and off-stage that was almost psychotically confrontational, even abusive. A homosexual who bragged of loathing “fags,” a virulent misogynist and all-around crank, Milligan found ready outlet for his hostilities in what McDonough terms “the Cino’s ego-peeling therapy-theatre.” Many among its regular crew of hungry professional actors, flamboyant amateurs and rough-trade pickups would soon comprise his “stock company” in a series of bottom-rung horror and sexploitation features.
Marginal even by 1960s Times Square grindhouse standards (the total budgets seldom exceeded $20,000), Milligan’s movies continue to divide the staunchest cult-cinema addicts, while remaining entirely unknown to everyone else. Few among his early sex-teasing “roughies” like “The Promiscuous Sex” and “Depraved!” survive. Horror fans are better acquainted with such later efforts as “Bloodthirsty Butchers” and “The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!”
But no Milligan pic is easy watching: Crudely shot in 16mm, claustrophobic and shrill, they padded their exploitable highlights (nudity, violence, cheap gore f/x) with long passages of his distinctively misanthropic dialogue.
Sometimes nearly unwatchable, the results could also prove perversely arresting. Despite miniscule budgets, Milligan often cast his lurid scenarios in medieval or Victorian eras, no matter that the costumes resembled Halloween garb or the “sets” painted cardboard. At best, as in 1970’s ultraobscure “Torture Dungeon,” he achieved a hysteria halfway between John Waters camp and genuine, unsettling Grand Guignol sadism.
Questions of artistic value aside, this ouevre recalls that of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who similarly cajoled, manipulated and terrorized his company actors into submission. (Another curious overlap: Both directors briefly married one of their actresses, despite their near-exclusive interest in men.)
As even this scrape-along career dried up by the late 70s, Milligan returned to ever-more-desperate theatrical ventures, growing yet more bitter as ill health dominated his final years.
McDonough peppers the text with the late auteur’s tape-recorded rants on any and all subjects — his recall of events often countered by variously bemused or still-appalled former associates (producer William Miskin and actor Frederick Forrest being the best-known).
McDonough retains a stubborn affection for Milligan as both primitive-baroque artiste and crank personality. Though at times digressively overdetailed (esp. in the long Caffe Cino section), the well-written and amply photo-illustrated “Ghastly One” is a fascinating tribute to one of the most extreme characters in U.S. exploitation cinema’s lurid annals.