Sunday, July 1, 2012

Andy Milligan is ruining me: A trash film fan finally meets his match

I’ve mentioned before how influential the Videohound Golden Movie Retriever was in shaping my cinematic tastes, partially because it alerted me to the existence of so many obscure films with wonderfully elaborate titles. I’ve been slowly tracking down my favorites over the past decade, always taking an unreasonable amount of joy in finding a terrible transfer of a film like Door-to-Door Maniac or The Severed Arm. When I recently discovered the long sought-after The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! tucked away in my beloved Internet Archive, I was beside myself. Little did I know that I was opening the door to perhaps the grimmest chapter in my life as a film buff.

See, TRAC!TWAH! was directed by one Andy Milligan. That didn’t mean anything to me when I started watching it, but it’s become highly significant in the subsequent weeks. Andy Milligan, as it turns out, is something of a notorious figure in the world of trash cinema. He started out making arty exploitation films (none of which I’ve been able to track down… yet) but is now probably best known for his peculiar brand of horror. He’s sort of a poor man’s John Waters, a gutter-dwelling auteur with a unique vision, an unmistakable style and a thirst for sleaze. The big difference is that Milligan lacked the playful wit and self-awareness that made Waters an icon. In its place lay a gaping chasm of bitterness and loathing.

By all reports I’ve read, Andy Milligan was a very unpleasant person. The product of a broken, abusive home (and, on a personal note, a native of my current hometown of Saint Paul), he was reputedly a mean, misogynistic sadist who used his art as an outlet for all of his worst tendencies. There are plenty of artists out there who fit that profile, but there aren’t many who approached their art so vigorously or viciously. Andy Milligan made movies like he was mad at the very existence of film. His cinematic world is an unholy marriage of spite and incompetence, but I’ll be damned if I don’t find it strangely compelling.

And “compelling” really is the only word for it. I don’t watch Andy Milligan movies because I enjoy them, or because I think they’re an important piece of my pop cultural education. I watch them because, now that I know they exist, I feel weirdly driven to subject myself to as many as I can. “Subject” is also the right word, because these movies are not fun to watch by any recognizable measure. Here are a few things you can expect from your average Andy Milligan movie.

Elaborate period costumes that feel slightly “off.”
Milligan apparently loved making clothes and proudly handled costume design for most of his films, despite being only OK at it.

Endless, breathless conversations with little to no bearing on anything.
In Milligan’s world, couples and families spend most of their free time talking and talking and talking in florid language about one of two topics: how much they love each other or how much they hate each other.

Exposition. So, so much exposition.
When they’re not waxing purple about love and hate, Milligan’s people are helpfully filling us in on back story with a heavy handedness that would make a Law & Order writer retch.

Physical abuse of a male invalid.
As I mentioned, Milligan was a real-life sadist. His dedication to filming his fetishes makes Quentin Tarantino’s obsession with ladies’ feet look downright subtle.

Really bad gore effects.
Onscreen gore was still coming into its own during Milligan’s late ‘60s-early ‘70s heyday, but his low-grade splatter wouldn’t have passed muster in even the earliest Herschel Gordon Lewis features.

Awful monster make-up.
Not every Milligan movie has a supernatural plot, but those that do tend to end up with somebody donning a really unfortunate werewolf mask or goofy vampire teeth.

The darkness.
I think I’ve covered the figurative darkness of Milligan’s films already, but they’re also physically dark, to the point that it’s often impossible to suss out what the hell is happening onscreen. That’s not always a bad thing.

All of that might give you the impression that Andy Milligan made “so bad it’s good” movies. (I’m not a fan of that term in any situation, but getting into that would require too much digression.) That isn’t the case. Andy Milligan made bad movies, plain and simple. They aren’t fun to watch, nor are they memorable in the way transcendently bad films like Frankenstein Island or the Ed Wood oeuvre are. He’s the rare director whose films are improved by distraction. I often wash dishes or perform other household chores while tackling a Milligan.

Nevertheless, Milligan’s films are fascinating to me because they reflect an undeniable artistic vision. Nothing else looks or feels quite like an Andy Milligan movie. Guru the Mad Monk and The Ghastly Ones, to pick two random examples, are set centuries apart on different continents, and filmed with an entirely different cast. Even so, the production and tone of both films are so similar that they’re unmistakably the work of the same creator.

There just aren’t many directors who can place such an inimitable stamp so plainly across a three-decade body of work. When I think of truly distinctive directors like, say, Robert Altman or Frederico Fellini, I can usually also point to a slew of knock-offs and homages that get the style almost but not quite right. Even legendarily “bad” directors like Ed Wood and Bert I. Gordon, for all their distinctive trademarks, don’t stand nearly as far apart from their peers as does Milligan. I can’t even imagine how you’d approach making a Milligan rip-off, although it has been done. Odd as it may sound, I find that kind of dedication to one’s own artistic vision – even a cruel, monotonous, incoherent one – immensely inspiring.

I’m not alone in my unfortunate appreciation of Mr. Milligan. He’s inspired at least one book-length biography and a slew of blogs and essays. (My personal favorite is Joseph A. Ziemba’s dishearteningly thorough rundown of Milligan’s horror films for He also has a celebrity champion in Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has dedicated a great deal of time and money to getting Milligan’s films back into the public eye. I’ve noticed that there don’t seem to be a lot of casual Milligan fans. There are those who remain blissfully unaware of his body of work, and there are those who become obsessed by it.

Once you have a few Milligans under your belt, you can even begin to find some pleasures in them. For instance, I don’t know if John Miranda’s bitterly unhinged performance as Sweeney Todd in The Bloodthirsty Butchers is really all that good, but seeing someone act with even a hint of nuance felt like a revelation after watching dozens of other Milliganders alternate between lifelessness and histrionics. Likewise, if I’d gone into Blood cold, it may not have made much of an impression on me. Seeing it after a string of even shoddier Milligan films, however, made its relative – very relative – competence feel like a blessed relief.

Note before you click: This is not just a clip. This is the entire movie. You may not be able to extract yourself once you enter.

So what do I want you to take away from this little essay? Hell, I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted to share the misery. Maybe this is my way of trying to get a grip on what I find so inspiring about this dreadful body of work. Maybe I just want to know that something has come of the hours I’ve dedicated to Andy Milligan while countless genuine classics remain unseen by my eyes. One thing I know for certain: there’s a full-length print of Milligan's reputedly unwatchable Surgikill up on YouTube right now that demands my attention. Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers.

Special thanks to my man Joe Gibson for alerting me to that Nicolas Winding Refn article, and for putting up with my regular Milligan venting on Twitter.

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