MILLIGANMANIA! Part 1: A Staten Island Gothic Triptych

Historically speaking, no one ever had a kind word for grindhouse auteur Andy Milligan. During his lifetime, he was slagged by everyone from Stephen King to Michael Weldon. It wasn’t until Jimmy McDonough wrote his mind-blowing Milligan biography The Ghastly One that people began to reconsider Milligan as something more than a purveyor of celluloid rotgut. In fairness to his critics, he was usually reckless when it came to technique or continuity to jaw-dropping degrees – but one must also consider that he was usually working on a budget in the low five figures and writing, directing, shooting and cutting the whole thing on his own. He even made the costumes!

Severin Films’s recent box set The Dungeon Of Andy Milligan has allowed many grindhouse enthusiasts to experience a lot of his work for the first time: it collects all the available films from his NYC era, giving several their first-ever HD transfers and even delivering a few never-before-seen director’s cuts along with extras a-plenty, including a fantastic liner notes booklet by Stephen Thrower. Schlockmania has gone through all the films and assembled this retrospective series to lay out the highlights in convenient triple feature bills.  This first installment is devoted to his “Staten Island Gothics,” a series of costume-dramas-gone-grindhouse that he made on his personal stomping grounds, usually in his own house.  Read on for a triple-shot of historical twistedness a la Milligan…

THE GHASTLY ONES: Three sisters and their hubbies gather at the old family abode for a will reading but soon find themselves awash in dead bodies and surprise revelations of the sleaziest sort. Milligan had three shorts and five features under his belt by the time he made this drive-in/grindhouse perennial but for viewers outside of NYC, this was their first taste of his distinctive style. It’s dizzying just how much Milligan crams into 81 minutes: you’ve got an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery that doubles as a proto-slasher with a noteworthy body count. There’s also a dash of sexploitation plus the filmmaker setting up motifs that would reverberate through his best-known work: a tragic hunchback character, incest, the family unit as an inescapable tragedy, traditional hetero relationships inducing misery for their participants, etc. Milligan’s technique is as rudimentary as you’ve heard but what matters is the white-hot intensity he fuels his narrative with: he rockets through his storyline as the cast spits out their lines with frenzied energy and/or pure venom, the camera mercilessly close as they toy with each other until the bodies start falling. The end result blitzkriegs right over the audience, consistently on the edge of falling apart but driven by an angry, spiteful view of life. God help those who wander into this maelstrom of campy rage unprepared.

TORTURE DUNGEON: Milligan’s last homegrown flick before a period of work in the U.K. might be Schlockmania’s favorite of his films. This one has a Shakespearean bent, depicting a perverted, one-armed prince (Gerald Jacuzzo) scheming his way to the throne by manipulating and bumping off everyone in his way. Imagine a young John Waters circa Multiple Maniacs directing a fevered rewrite of Titus Andronicus and you’ll get the idea of the fun on tap here. The direction is built for speed rather than comfort, with camerawork that is more reckless than usual, but the gleeful pileup of perversions, cheesecake and cheap gore FX takes the viewer by force – and Milligan’s self-made procession of cheap renaissance fair costumes adds to the surreal fever-dream quality of it all. Jacuzzo is awe-inspiringly campy in a knowing way as the film’s nasty anti-hero, wearing a wig that makes him resemble a twisted Sonny Bono, and you also get fun turns from Richard Mason as a horny hunchback, Susan Cassidy as a pawn who wears see-through negligees and impossibly low-cut gowns and Maggie Rogers as a wild witch with secrets.  The tour through the title location is one of the most entertaining sequences in the Milligan filmography.

GURU THE MAD MONK: this was Milligan’s triumphant return to the Staten Island gothic after a brief but eventful era of production in the U.K. It’s his version of a Witchfinder General-style film, utilizing the horror genre as a vehicle for attacking one of his favorite targets, the hypocrisies and cruelties of the church. The anti-hero is the title character (Neil Flanagan), a wicked minister who uses his far-flung church outpost as a way to indulge his desire to dominate and kill.  It’s lighter on sex than usual but there’s a lot of killings, melodrama and a tragic hunchback who’s mistreated by most everyone. Flanagan was one of the best actors in Milligan’s repertory company and he makes the most of a juicy role, running around in a cut-price Milligan frock, giving acidic soliloquies to his hunchback and slaughtering several characters in scenes with sub-H.G. Lewis gore FX. This one gets a lot of stick for its frequent anachronisms (look for the moped that makes a background cameo) but Milligan actually shot this blasphemous narrative utilizing a real church, giving it an added subversive kick. At just over an hour, it’s also one of his most compact and tightly-wound pieces.

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