By Doug Gibson
Vapors is a fascinating pre-Stonewall era short film that portrays the gay lifestyle of that era in neutral, and even positive story-telling. The 32-minute black and white film was shot by Andy Milligan, the late cult gay filmmaker who would later make a string micro-budget gutter horror films unique enough to garner cult status.
Vapors may be Milligan’s best film, although “Fleshpot on 42nd Street” is a strong contender. The film takes place in a bathhouse of that era in NYC, it’s meant to be the St. Marks bathhouse (exteriors are shot there, and towels from that establishment are used in the film. Interiors, which are quite realistic, were shot near Milligan’s apartment in NYC. A gay young man, played by Gerry Jacuzzo, who would become a Milligan troupe actor, arrives at the bathhouse. He, Thomas, enters a room and awaits male companionship. An older man, Mr. Jaffe, played by Cino Café director Bob Dadah, enters and the two begin a conversation. Sex is never mentioned but the chat is intimate; much of this is due to Jacuzzo’s performance, which is Oscar quality. He maintains eye and hand contact with Mr. Jaffe and makes an effort to understand this interesting man.
Dadah is very good too as a repressed homosexual, married, and making his first trip to a bathhouse. It becomes apparent soon that he’s looking for someone to talk to, about his dissatisfaction with his wife and his grief over his son’s death. During the conversation, Mr. Jaffe, played well by Dadah, asks to touch Thomas’ skin. The caress is tender. The conversation has turned to Mr. Jaffe’s dead son, and Thomas seems to be a surrogate, a chance for a grieving father to caress a child once again.
Although no sex occurs between these two, their conversation is more intimate than intercourse.
Also in the movie are various “queens,” frequent, ubiquitous frequenters of St. Mark’s that move in and out of the action. Usually grouped together, they serve as a Shakespearian choir, updating the audience about life in the bathhouse and the culture of frequent, anonymous homosexual sex.
This was filmed almost 20 years before the AIDS virus struck. It’s a time capsule of a movie. Watching the lives of quiet and extrovert desperation, one understands how unfair it was that those who desired same-sex companionship were forced into the dysfunctional, seedy world of St. Mark’s and other locations. As Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough has published, Milligan was a frequent participant in the life of frequent anonymous sexual encounters with men in sticky locations, from bathhouses to flophouses to 42nd Street theaters. He died of AIDS, as did many of his contemporaries.
The film was written by Hope Stansbury, a Milligan actress. It is at times a corny victim of its era. The queens, the best acting is by another Milligan actor, Hal Borske, are stereotypical and might be considered bigoted today. Dadah’s complaints of his wife’s cold cream, ugly feet and bunions are juvenile. But it all works, largely due to Jacuzzo’s sensitive, intense performance.
The last scene has Thomas, alone, asking a man to come in his room. The man drops his St. Mark’s bathrobe. In the original film release, it focuses on the visitor’s penis. That caused police raids in its time. The Something Weird folks, who rescued the film from oblivion, have a print that does a sketchy job of blocking the penis. Vapors, which deserves more notice, is an extra on SW’s DVD of another Milligan film, The Body Beneath; its trailer is also included. It is also in a SW compilation of gay films of that era.