Sunday, September 7, 2008

All about Surgikill, Andy Milligan's last film

In the late 1990s and early part of this century, a consistent Andy Milligan cult almost developed. A book was published, a few of his films were released, there were some articles in film genre pubs and zines ... but then it faded. But a tiny cult remains, think Ed Wood in the mid-70s. Here at Plan 9 Crunch we offer a DVD-R of Milligan's hard-to-find "Torture Dungeon," and we've sold at least a dozen in a few months, as far away as Peru and a university film society in Turkey. Milligan's films are crude, even "bad," but he was unique. The swirl camera, the cheesy gore (fake heads, boiled eggs in eyes), the garish, slapped-on costumes by "Raffine," the uber-dysfunctional families, the males getting it in films such as "The Ghastly Ones," the very unsexy sex scenes, the gritty camera, so effective in Fleshpot on 42nd Street. ... And I'm sure our readers could add more.
Now, on to Surgikill: A few months ago, Plan 9 Crunch came in contact with screenwriter Sherman Hirsh. He penned the original screenplay to Surgikill. Andy Milligan changed enough of it to get screenwriting credit, Sherman was given original story credit. Plan 9 Crunch, after a long wait, finally got a chance to see Surgikill. It's a different experience. It's Andy trying comedy. Sherman will tell readers why Andy made a comedy in the following fascinating essay he offers Plan 9 Crunch. Sherman's piece is fascinating. It offers readers a detailed glimpse into Milligan's late career, as well as a look into the competitive world of low-budget filmmaking. There is information in this essay that has never been published before. We're happy to share it via Plan 9 Crunch. And we want to share the news that a DVD release of Surgikill is coming soon. We'll let you know when! After Sherman Hirsh's essay is a review of the VHS version of Surgikill from Plan 9 Crunch's Steve Stones.

So, start reading cult film fans, you're in for a treat! (And if you'd like to buy Torture Dungeon, just click on the Ebay link to the right!)

-- Doug Gibson
SURGIKILL – A Writer’s Perspective
By Sherman Hirsh
The Public rarely knows how a film was intended to be. The practice of including "Extras" on DVD’s has created an appetite among fans for deleted scenes and commentaries about what was intended vs. what got released. SURGIKILL, the movie that concluded Andy Milligan’s film career, is in the process of being prepared for its first DVD release, but there will be no extras, so this will be the only look anyone is likely to get at what happened behind the scenes.

I am always a little amazed at how much interest there is in SURGIKILL. For a long time, it was listed as a mere footnote to Andy’s filmography. There was a period during the 90s when it seemed like every periodical within the realm of Fantastic Journalism had a piece about the career of the auteur of "THE RATS ARE COMING, THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE," with most of them mere reiterations of the versions which just preceded them. One writer, a New York actor who had worked with Andy, thought it may have been a re-make of the European classic, "EROTIKILL."

This was during the time when SURGIKILL was still one of several unreleased Milligan films. When I became aware of all of this, I figured it would be a good time to get SURGIKILL out. I don’t own any of SURGIKILL, but I was still in contact with the producers, ( in fact, I am still working with them on the development of new projects,) and in 1996, I called their attention to all of this ink Andy was getting and they agreed with me and started the long arduous process of getting SURGIKILL out. Why was it long and arduous? That is part of the tale of the Genesis of this film, a film which is about equally despised and enjoyed by various Andyphiles.

It all started with a script written by a 38-year-old Viet Nam veteran who, having exhausted all of the cinematic possibilities of Cleveland, emigrated to L.A., in hopes of having something resembling a Hollywood career. He, I, had come to Hollywood hoping to get into production. Instead, I ended up in a series of lack-luster McJobs, that left little energy to pursue a production job, but a lot of time to write. I made my first sale of an original script in ’85. It was a XXX "Adult" film, and I got the princely sum of $1500 for it. That was followed by several more, including one that was declared #1 Adult film of the Summer of ’86.

This brought me to the attention of a director who was planning to produce a few cheapies for cable. We kicked around a few ideas, and I delivered a Spy script, a drama about someone who liked to murder teenagers, and he settled on THE THOUSAND YEAR QUEST, a Sword & Sorcery fantasy. He wanted and I delivered a script he could realize in two weeks of shooting and would cost no more than $120,000. What he got was a movie that cost $400,000, took over a year and a half to finish and was released as LORDS OF MAGICK. It is notable for having a scene in it where porn icon Ron Jeremy plays a zombie who gets blown up by the magic of one of the hero wizards.

Armed with something resembling a track record, I started a campaign to get myself a directing gig. Once again, I offered the potential backers several possibilities. One was a European-style crime farce about actors robbing banks, not for the cash, but for the publicity. One was a chiller about some college geeks who piss off a long dead witch in a swamp.

And there was that humorous, light splatter piece about the nice little hospital with a slasher problem. It was written in the Spring of ’87, under the working title of "Horror Hospital." I would show it to the teenagers at the place where I worked and they all liked it. I told them I needed a stronger title, and one guy suggested "Surgical Kill." That made me think of SURGIKILL. I recently became aware of an English group calling itself Surgikill, and I contacted them, asking where they had gotten the name. Other than claiming it had nothing top do with the movie, they were little help.

I found a company, Media Arts Productions, who liked the scripts, and they went with the medical horror story first, because of the reputation horror films have for costing little, being easy to shoot, not needing Stars, having an automatic audience, etc. The swamp witch piece went on the back burner, where it still languishes.

We had long discussions about how I would direct it and what I would need, and they seemed to be all for my concepts. Then I learned that they wanted a name director, and after seeing a want ad Andy Milligan placed in the LA Times, and without discussing it with me first, brought him in to shoot my movie. Fine, thinks I. I’ll get the next one. I was still on the shoot as writer and cranked out what seemed to be an endless supply of new or modified material. I even wrote a whole new serious version for a possible partner that absolutely no one liked, and the project went back to my serio-comic version.

We were all invited to Andy’s house in Hollywood on Orange Drive, the house where he eventually shot part of MONSTROSITY, for a pleasant brunch, and some light business chat. He was prepping MONSTROSITY at the time, and SURGIKILL would be next. He put on the charm, told me he liked the script, and I got to talk to him at length. We kicked around some technical points, filmmaker to filmmaker. He told me some of his frugal filmmaking techniques.
I brought up the popular notion that he had made films in Europe. He told me he had never made a film in Europe and had no idea where the idea came from, and I believed him. I bring this up because it shows up in 90 percent of the stories about Andy and is totally false.
He invited me into the kitchen to help prepare our meal, and we discussed his film vs. his theater career. Then he hit on me. I’m straight. We spoke little after that. Brunch was good, though.

Not long after, I noticed his casting notice for MONSTROSITY in a local trade paper, and thought I would audition just to see what would happen. At the time it was still called IT, but there was a conflict with a little thing Stephen King wrote about a monstrous clown with a thing for balloons and some annoying kids and Andy decided to change it later. However, I was inspired by all this and in August of ’87, I wrote a screenplay around Andy. It was originally called I PUKE ON DRACULA’S GRAVE, and was about a low budget shooter who is making monster movies with real monsters cooked up by his mad scientist partner. He casts his movies by kidnapping kids who come to LA to become stars, and forcing them to become HIS stars. He also sends his monsters to discipline critics who give him bad reviews.

We got invited to Andy’s studio to watch him shoot what was still called IT one night. Andy had rented a vacant bar at the wrong end of Sunset Boulevard In fact, I had been there a couple years earlier as a guest of a friend of mine who was playing in the house band when the place was called the On Club. His assistants told me the place was haunted and they were always seeing "things" and hearing "things." They also showed me several hundred dollars worth of change they had harvested from around the bar, change dropped by countless bartenders over who-knows-how-many years.

I only got to speak to Andy briefly that night. I did get to tell him he had inspired I PUKE ON DRACULA'S GRAVE. He enjoyed hearing that.

Make up and special effects on IT were handled by a talented artist named Rod Matsui. We discussed many topics while we waited for the cast to get ready. I talked about my experiences, and mentioned I had had a script ripped off by a certain director who has a reputation for similar abuses. At the mere mention of the name, half the actors in the room, long time members of the LA low budget Indie community, and apparently survivors of this director, shot me some of the nastiest looks I ever got, and I once got a nasty look from Bettie Davis!

Shooting began in a small grocery store. I observed Andy’s shooting style from the standpoint of someone who had gone to Film School. I was appalled! His lighting was primitive, a single professional grade light and a suitcase full of clip-on worklights. He shot with the lens aperture wide open and never used a light meter, leaving it to the processing lab to make things works. This accounts for the "gritty" look a lot of low budget films have.

The mic was placed on the floor, pointing in the general direction of the action, resulting in a load of room tone and echo. Now, this is a proper way to mic a live stage show, but the acoustics of an LA Mom & Pop food store call for a different approach. Unfortunately, Andy had none.

IT and SURGIKILL were shot on 35MM film. Andy usually used what are called short ends, the leftovers of unused film from other shoots, and are cheaper than "new" film. Andy’s modus operandi was to shoot the take, and check the gate on his ancient Arriflex studio camera. If there was film in the gate, he would move on to the next set up, on the assumption that he didn’t run out of film during the take. Retakes were rare on a Milligan shoot. However, there were so many low budget films being shot in LA at the time, there was a total famine of short ends and Andy was forced to buy more expensive full loads.

If you’ve seen MONSTROSITY, you may recall a scene where some lowlifes have abducted a lady and are making their escape. At one point, they almost get into an accident with another car. That was real! I was standing behind the camera when that was shot and the other car came out of nowhere. Just a lucky coincidence of someone being in the wrong place at the right time! We managed to hang around for the rest of the shoot. After that, I never saw Andy Milligan again.

I had absolutely nothing to do with the making of SURGIKILL. Andy conducted casting calls at his studio, where he encountered Bouvier. She is a multi-talented artist, designer, entrepreneur and performer, who has extensive credits in stage, film and TV. I’m not sure, but I believe she also, along with her business partner, may have invested in SURGIKILL, along with the usual moneyed lawyers, real estate investors and a few parasites who hang around with filmmakers so they can pickup cute starlets. Principal photograpy began at a decommisioned hospital near downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood so foul, people had to be escorted to and from their cars. The weirdos in the movie were pale copies of the real homeless who lived around the facility. Additional scenes were shot at Andy's studio on Sunset.

On a personal note, I embedded a little joke in the script. I refered to the Jail Ward as the J Ward. If you recall your cartoon history, you'll remember that Jay Ward created Rocky & Bullwinkle. And the dog, Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman. That was my limp way of getting revenge for 20 years of Sherman and Peabody jokes. Unfortunately, Ward died before the film came out, so my vengeance is hollow and vain.

Credits are sometimes "adjusted" to suit special circumstances. For instance, Andy gets credit for the screenplay for SURGIKILL, while I, who wrote several complete drafts before Andy signed on, am relegated to "Original Story" Actually, Andy wrote very little. What Andy did originate was a large component of improvisation. He regarded the script as a catalog, not a blueprint. He would choose a scene here and a scene there and staple it all together later. SURGIKILL is about 30 percent my work, as opposed to LORDS OF MAGICK, which is about 80 percent mine.

The picture was completed, and sat for several years in the garage of one of the investors, due to the usual commercial conflicts. Andy went back to his studio and put on plays for two years until his AIDS rendered him too weak to function, and he eventually died.

The folks at Media Arts had to ransom Surgikill back, and then find a distributor. At the time, maverick film distributor and innovator, TROMA, was trolling for finished films, as they still do, and CEO Lloyd Kaufman was reputedly an Andy Milligan fan and liked SURGIKILL. However, TROMA’s standard contract is so convoluted and restrictive, it scared Media Arts away. For instance, the contract grants TROMA total ownership of ALL rights, for ALL time, even on OTHER PLANETS! Media Arts decided to pass, and eventually undertook self-distribution. They figured it was the only way to get their $90,000 back. ( THE BIGGEST BUDGET ANDY MILLIGAN EVER HAD!) Then, in early 2000, I got a surprise in the mail, a VHS copy of "ANDY MILLIGAN’S LAST FILM… SURGIKILL." And now, 20-plus years after its origination, SURGIKILL is being spiffed up for DVD release.

It is not generally known that after Andy’s commitment was up, others on the shoot shot new scenes, like one with a poorly done Oliver Hardy impersonator, and re-cut the movie. People who thought they knew what they were doing shot their half-baked ideas and glued them to the movie. What you may see is not exactly want Andy intended, and definitely not what I intended.

Critics love to pick movies apart and assign their own significance to the pieces. SURGIKILL is characterized as a departure from films in Andy’s established style. Andy didn’t want to do those anymore. Andy’s illness depressed him and made him want to make a light happy comedy. My script, although very humorous, was not a farce. Andy made everybody an idiot, and the hospital totally incompetent.

My original philosophy was to make it a good hospital, populated with quirky but capable professionals. I, quite simply, wanted the audience to care about the characters. Instead, you get a bunch of doctors who are all jerks, and nurses who are all airheads, except for the head nurse who was a drag queen, something I have always suspected was a nostalgic reference to Andy’s New York experience. I once asked Bouvier what it was like to kiss a man in a dress, and she said it was weird!

In my script, Nurse Shirley Krankhaus was a very competent, overworked head nurse. Also, calling "her" Nurse Ratched, from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, I regarded as a totally corny cliche'. Just like I wanted Dr. Schweitzer, the 17-year-old intern, to be smart and stable, not a wimpy nerd sucking on a pacifier. The way it turned out, you not only don’t care about these people, you want the killer to waste the whole mob!

Now comes the Big So What. I am acutely aware that the public doesn’t care about what they don’t see. They embrace or reject SURGIKILL based on what they glean from the screen. To most people, SURGIKILL is Andy’s. Nobody cares two figs about writers, anyway.

So what do I really think about SURGIKILL? There are parts that scream to be taken out, but most people don’t see it from the perspective of someone who has seen the real SURGIKILL in his head for 20 years. I don’t hate it. I do resent some of the events, but I’m glad I had the experience.

It works as what it became. It’s a different movie from the one I conceived. While it’s not what I wanted it to be, what’s there is not bad. I’m not talking about quality. I’m talking about the single basic thing a film must not be; BORING. A bad movie is a boring movie. Basically, SURGIKILL is not boring. If sheer technical/aesthetic/social quality were the most important values, then we would never have seen anything by John Waters and Troma would be a long-forgotten failure.

SURGIKILL is not a movie for the masses. It has no strong clear hero, the plot is ragged and the characters are too much alike. It has Cult appeal, but not within the established Andy Milligan community, if such a thing exists. It is an anomaly, and while it may have its advocates, it will never be a full member of the Andy Milligan canon, nor be discussed in the same terms. If there is a SURGIKILL sub-cult, we'll soon know!

SURGIKILL represents one of about 30 screenplays I have written, and one of five to actually be produced. I was a filmmaker a long time before I was a writer. I was drafted out of my first job in film, a job I got while I was still in film school, and sent to Viet Nam. I was a college-level film teacher. I worked in film and video in many capacities. I was a radio talk show host. In fact, radio is my second love after film.

When Andy Warhol said that in the future, everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, he was almost right. I’ve had about five or six 15-Minute Fames, and I’ll probably get a couple more. My little movie LOVE SLAVES OF THE SHE-MUMMY is out there, selling a few copies. I’m prepping SCREAM, ZOMBIE, SCREAM! for production this Fall. Maybe I’ll shoot I PUKE ON DRACULA’S GRAVE. Maybe I’ll shoot MY version of SURGIKILL someday. Actually, I have a lot of notes pertinent to SURGIKILL 2, but I can’t really talk about that right now.

Sherman Hirsh
North Hollywood, CA
September 1, 2008



In 1988, underground filmmaker Andy Milligan embarked on directing his final full-length feature film. Media Arts Productions LLC produced it. The film was to be a black comedy set in a small community hospital called Goode Community Hospital, named after Dr. Grace Goode, a character in the film played by Darlene Van Harlingen, also known as Bouvier. Her husband, John Van Harlingen, was the executive producer. This film is quite departure from the canon of other Milligan films, which were over the top sex and gore epics. The film was shot in an abandoned neighborhood clinic near downtown Los Angeles.

Dr. Goode is desperately trying to keep her small hospital in functioning order as some of her staff and patients are being murdered one by one. Not to mention that she is constantly being hounded to sell the hospital for other greedy business prospects.

The film is full of over-the-top gags and gimmicks that are occasionally funny and sometimes overstated and juvenile. For example, one particularly funny scene, at least to me, shows an old woman arriving at the hospital reception desk with a bedpan stuck to her butt. Two hospital orderlies attempt to pry it off her as she stands in complete embarrassment. Other scenes show characters being hit over the head with a bedpan, or splashed with urine from bedpans. These scenes quickly become overstated. Some of the characters constantly repeating: "We care about the people we care for," quickly gets exhausted too.

Another particularly funny scene shows an old woman lying on her back in the operating room with an arrow sticking out of her butt. Apparently her husband had mistaken her for an archery target and accidentally shot her in the butt. Perhaps her husband was on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney at the time, long before he became Vice President?

A latter scene in the same operating room has Dr. Harvey and Dr. Schweitzer performing a gallbladder surgery. They can’t seem to find the patient’s gallbladder, so they end up tearing out several of the organs from the patient. This particular scene has some connection to earlier Milligan films because it is intentionally and graphically violent, even if the organs used in the scene are obviously unconvincing and fake. Herschel Gordon Lewis would be proud of this scene.

A connection this film has to earlier Milligan films is the nurse-receptionist character and drag queen Ronna, who is very similar to the drag queen in Milligan’s excellent Fleshpot On 42nd Street, played by Neil Flanagan. Ronna is later revealed to be Robert Goode, who is Grace Goode’s cousin and the murderer in the film. Robert is murdering hospital staff and patients in hopes to inherit the family hospital for himself.

Nurse Ronna and Dr. Grace Goode are the two characters I enjoyed the most, and felt the audience would have the greatest connection to. The young, fresh out of medical school Dr. Schweitzer, seems a bit unconvincing to me as he constantly sucks on a baby’s pacifier, implying that he is young, inexperienced and "wet behind the ears." This character gets a bit annoying too. Many of the actors in the film are way over the top in their acting, and frequently shout their lines, much like in an early John Waters film.

Is Surgikill a great film? No, but who cares? I like movies to occasionally be campy, over-the-top and unbelievable, otherwise I would not be writing articles for this web site. Is Surgikill Andy Milligan’s best film? Probably not. I place my vote with Torture Dungeon, which I regard as his greatest masterpiece. Still, any die-hard fan of Andy Milligan cannot afford to miss this entry in his filmography. It may not have the same low-budget, gritty charm as his films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it is worthy of a viewing, if only to see what his last film looks like before his death in 1991. Like Milligan’s earlier films, I am confident that Surgikill will continue to gain a strong cult following as the years go by. Fans are eagerly awaiting a DVD release soon.

-- Steve D. Stones


Sterbor_Nimajneb said...

Thanks for the inside look at the politics of tastlessness! I love that bit about "The Rats are coming. The Werewolves are here," and of course it's always interesting to hear how the living breathing bog monster of b-grade movie making englorps a screenplay and bleches out something totally different. If you guys are interested, I noticed their doing "Movies under the Stairs" down at the Red Light Bookstore in Salt Lake (179 E 300 S) on Mondays at 8pm. Here's a not very informative link: But I saw a schedule in the City Weekly. This month is ninjas and samuris and such. Next month they're doing Reanimator... as well as a Videodrome/Scanner night.

Doug Gibson, Steve Stones said...

Thanks Sterbor_nimajneb

Thanks for the info on "Movies Under the Stairs."

Plan 9 Crunch

Anonymous said...

So Milligan didn't make movies "in Europe"... many people don't consider that the British Isles is Europe at all, and with more people still, when they hear "Europe", they assume they're speaking of 'the continent'. There is no doubt at all that he went to England and made movies there. He made five movies in the Hampstead section of north London, two of which had additional scenes shot on Staten Island.