Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Gutter Auteur an interesting criticism into work of grindhouse filmmaker Andy Milligan

By Doug Gibson

"Gutter Auteur: The Films of Andy Milligan," McFarland Press, 2012, is the latest subject of film criticism from Rob Craig, who earlier tackled "Ed Wood: Mad Genius" for the same press. To be honest, it doesn't really matter much if readers agree or not with Craig's comments and criticisms of the late grindhouse filmmaker, Milligan, who completed about 30 very low-budget films over nearly three decades, the 60s to early 90s. (Most of his films were completed prior to 1975). What's important is that Milligan, and his films, are receiving this depth of examination and commentary. Milligan, 1929-1991, made unique films which developed tiny cult interest prior to his death. In the past generation, thanks largely to an excellent biography by Jimmy McDonough, articles from Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog) and more critiques from Sleazoid Express author, the late Bill Landis, his cult has grown, albeit very slowly.

As good as McDonough's biography is, if focused more on his life than his films. Craig's effort -- despite some introductions -- including a thin one from Milligan contemporary Robert Patrick -- and background information on grindhouse cinema and the culture of sleaze that defined the now-gone 42nd Street theater district, where Milligan's films flourished, -- focuses on the films, describing them, deconstructing them, and even providing some information on how they fared commercially. For those who have seen enough of Milligan's films, "Seeds," "Torture Dungeon," "Bloodthirsty Butchers," "Nightbirds," "Blood," "The Ghastly Ones," "The Weirdo," ... and so on, it won't be a surprise that Craig views Milligan's work often as harsh, dysfunctional deadly attacks on the traditional family, motherhood, heterosexual relationships, heterosexual oral sex and happiness, which simply is not an approved ending in a Milligan film. Sex is twisted in a Milligan film, which often features incest.

To find the reasons for this pessimism, Craig hearkens back to McDonough's biography, which revealed the extremely dysfunctional family that Milligan grew up in. It included a morbidly obese, probably insane mother and a hapless, enabling father. The early films of Milligan are lost, thanks to a producer who destroyed them. However, a surviving early film, "Seeds," probably is representative of Milligan's early "sex" films, that dealt with life in the city and family. Craig regards "Seeds" as both a sex film and a horror film. Perhaps, but the horror is not traditional; it's comprised of a family literally rotting from hate and dysfunction, where violence and murder seems a natural result rather than a plot twist. (In the Seed DVD extras, there is a "working print" of Seeds that is far better than the main film, which is slowed down considerably by 35MM sex inserts. (Milligan shot Seeds and most of his films in 16MM blown up). The inserts almost ruin the film.

Milligan's "horror" films are better described as period pieces produced -- mainly for producer William Mishkin -- that fit a particular commercial need for 42nd Street fare but still enabled Milligan to produce his Genet-like and Grand Guignol-type attacks on traditional values, including the family and sexual relations. A dressmaker by trade, his films include garish colors, elevator music, and roses. They include "Torture Dungeon," his version of Shakespeare by way of Staten Island, "The Man with Two Heads," his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which Craig aptly notes may be the best version of Stevenson's classic tale, "Bloodthirsty Butchers," his take on Sweeney Todd, "Blood," his monster-mash of Universal's creations, "Monstrosity," his take on "Shelly's Frankenstein, "The Body Beneath," his vampire take, and "Guru: The Mad Monk,: his dark riff on religious dogma. (And to think I've only mentioned a few of his films!)

Craig understands that sampling Milligan, while not exactly a pleasant experience, is time well spent intellectually. They provide a glimpse into a world where positive results are simply not possible due to the ugliness that dominate human relationships. Take the recent BFI Flip Side DVD release of the once semi-lost Milligan film, "Nightbirds," which Craig critiques. In it, a young man meets a beautiful woman who enraptures him with sex, then casts him away. He dies and the predatory woman goes after a new man to ruin. As Craig mentions, it's a claustrophobic film, with most of the action confined to a single room. The male protagonist is a pathetic figure, a mere fly for the evil woman's web. It's also impossible not to keep watching.

Milligan was literally a one-man filmmaker, doing everything from directing to gaffer work to music scoring in order to make his films cheaply for Mishkin and others. Most of his films cost about $10,000. It's a tribute to his ramshackle skills (perhaps mostly learned as a director for the iconic, tiny Caffe Cino in the early 1960s) that Milligan could create these haphazard agitprop worlds on the cheap yet create characters and situations that hooked viewers.

By most accounts, Milligan could be a very unpleasant man. He drove away potential investors and friends and railed against Mishkin and other producers, although he seemed to live comfortably enough for more than two decades. He bought homes and a small hotel in Staten Island, and an off-off broadway theater in New York City. He eventually moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, and capped off his career making films for William Mishkin's son Lew, who was not as bright as his father. Lew Mishkin hated Milligan so much that he, as mentioned, deliberately destroyed copies of his earlier films. To this date, film sleuths are still looking for titles such as "The Naked Witch" and "Tricks of the Trade," and others that Mishkin Jr. melt for copper and spite. From time to time, Milligan films are discovered. Examples include "Vapors," his first film, a pre-Stonewall short about life in a gay bathhouse, "Seeds," and "Nightbirds."

It's interesting that Craig also did a book on Ed Wood. Both Milligan and Wood died in poverty. Milligan and Wood are diverse in that Wood was a likable chap with limited skills who destroyed himself with booze.  Milligan was a very skilled filmmaker who made his films in slapdash fashion. Milligan, although a prowler of gay night sex (he would die of AIDS) was not a drinker or drug abuser. His harsh personality drove away relationships that might have improved his finances.

Craig's criticisms  are interesting. He takes a somewhat contrary view of some films. He's less enthusiastic of "Vapors" and "Fleshpot on 42nd Street" than other critics are, and he likes later Milligan efforts such as "Legacy of Blood," and "Blood," more than many other Milligan enthusiasts. I appreciate his strong thumbs-up critique of "Monstrosity," the Frankenstein knockoff starring Milligan actor Hal Borske, that is a terrific, satirical comedy that deserves more notice. (In fact, memo to the folks at TCM Underground -- there are a wealth of Milligan films that deserve late-night Friday showings on your series.) One nice piece of observance by Craig is how Milligan, in his later films, "Carnage," "The Weirdo" and "Monstrosity," appear more kind to the protagonists than in earlier films, although the films still retain the customary dysfunctional endings. Craig, like McDonough, has only scorn for "Surgikill," Milligan's final hospital horror comedy. While the movie is very crude and juvenile, it does have some positive moments, and a Milligan touch, a drag queen nurse.

"Gutter Auteur" is a good read, and an improvement on Craig's otherwise OK book on Wood, which relied too much at times on feminist theory. I agree with Craig that Milligan's films are better on the big screen (I have yet to see one that way, unfortunately) I hope "Gutter Auteur"  takes a place as a work that contributes to Milligan's slow-but-baby-steps-consistency march to greater cult status. His films are fascinating slap-dash pieces of dysfunction, and Craig understands that, and provides some interesting commentary. Despite this book, a great biography and other works, I suspect there's more to learn about the fascinating life and work of Milligan.

For those uninitiated in Milligan, here's a great scene from Torture Dungeon (below).

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