Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Glutton for Punishment: THE GHASTLY ONES

 by JB

Severin Films has graced us with what I feel safe in saying is one of the best boxsets of the year...

... The Dungeon of Andy Milligan collects 14 of the notorious auteur’s films, with a bounty of extras and audio commentaries. Good Lord! Severin has even included a compact disc full of soundtrack music. I am impressed with the wealth of supplements here and by the quality of the transfers, given each grindhouse film’s bastard provenance. The films themselves? Well, let’s be kind and call them the “mixed bag” of an “eccentric, quirky, misunderstood filmmaker.”

For years after I read Stephen King’s 1981 nonfiction horror overview Danse Macabre, the phrase that he used to dismiss bad amateur filmmaking— “the work of morons with cameras”—stuck in my head like used bubblegum. I used this phrase often in my classes to describe a wide range of bad horror films, and I’ve even used it in my column. The booklet included in the boxset reminded me of something I had forgotten: when King originally used that phrase in his book, it was to describe the films of Andy Milligan.

And it gets worse. Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog called Milligan “the horror genre’s unwanted weirdo” and described his work as “recklessly shot body count bitch-fests.” Director Joe Dante once described the average Milligan film as “a home movie from Bedlam [Insane Asylum], seemingly processed in bathwater.” John Waters opined, “Andy Milligan is one scary man.” Perhaps Michael Weldon put it best in his indispensable Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film when he concluded, “If you’re an Andy Milligan fan, there is no hope for you.”

I include the preceding paragraph as a huge caveat emptor for any low-budget exploitation fans reading this column. Milligan’s films are strange and awful. I personally find them irresistibly strange and reliably, fascinatingly awful. Your mileage may vary. DO NOT PURCHASE THIS WONDERFUL BOX UNTIL YOU HAVE AT LEAST TASTED THE CONTENTS INSIDE FIRST. Like heroin, the first taste of Milligan is always free:

I have so far only watched the first film in the set, The Ghastly Ones, but I watched it three times. The fine folks at Severin include three commentary tracks, each of which is a must-listen. (Sticklers might argue that Fred Olen Ray’s track doesn’t qualify as a full commentary because HE DOESN’T MAKE IT TO THE END OF THE FILM. Let’s call it 2 ½ commentaries, then?) The Ghastly Ones is the perfect Milligan primer. It’s all here: the absurd framing that often reveals more ceiling than performer; the performances by a group of community theater-caliber actors who have been working together way too long; the casual nudity; the crazy wallpaper; the elaborate, impeccable costumes; the ineptly shot yet disturbing gore; and the irrational, crazy, virulent hatred of women. It’s all here on display. The Ghastly Ones is Andy Milligan’s Citizen Kane.
The Plot in Brief: Three married couples gather at an upstate mansion for the reading of a will. Said will stipulates that the three wives must spend three nights “in sexual harmony” with their husbands before receiving their inheritances. Unfortunately, there seems to be an uninvited guest on the mansion grounds, intent on murdering everyone in the bloodiest ways possible. This film is a lot like 1929’s The Cat and the Canary, but instead of a strictly metaphoric cat and canary, there is quite literal disembowelment.

The commentaries included here are entertaining and essential. Director Frank Henenlotter and actor Hal Borske discuss what it was like working for Milligan. Borske is one of only a few surviving actors from Milligan’s stock company. CineFear.com editor Keith Crocker discusses the film as it relates to Milligan’s life and other work. He has a fascinating theory about what the budgets of these films really were. Fred Olen Ray, God bless him, describes in some detail the realities of the odd 16mm camera Milligan used to shoot his films. It was this camera, and not Milligan’s apparent lack of skill, that led to the films looking the way they do. The camera simply lacked a through-the-lens, reflex viewfinder. When framing his shots, the best Milligan could do was use a crude viewfinder attached to the side of the camera... and guess. Fascinating.
Not to sound too much like a 12-year-old boy, but I also found Milligan’s use of nudity in his films fascinating. It is casual and realistic, not prurient or “lingered on” at all. The bonus features point out that Milligan was both homosexual and the victim of a bad childhood. His mother was overbearing and may have abused him, leading some to claim that this was the root of his rampant misogyny. It is also known that Milligan had a flair for fashion, spent part of his life working in the garment district in New York, and actually designed and fabricated the costumes for his films himself. So, I conclude that while Milligan was savvy enough to know that adding nudity to his films would make them more exploitable in the grindhouses in which they played, he had no personal interest in female nudity and, if truth be told, objected to having to show his actresses NOT wearing the dresses and other costumes he painstakingly constructed.

I look forward to the two to three weeks’ worth of further entertainment this boxset promises. Severin has assembled 14 of Milligan’s films (Besides The Ghastly Ones, you get Nightbirds; The Body Beneath; Torture Dungeon; Bloodthirsty Butchers; Curse of the Full Moon; The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!; The Man With Two Heads; Guru, The Mad Monk; Legacy of Blood (and its TV version, Legacy of Horror); Fleshpot on 42nd Street; Seeds; Carnage; Blood; and The Bearded Lady’s Wake. Combined with more than 10 hours of bonus features, fragments from two other Milligan projects, a CD of Hal Borske’s compositions from the bearded lady movie, and a wonderful 125-page book by Stephen Thrower, this is THE MUST BUY BOXSET OF 2021.
Look, most people would not choose to get thrown into a real dungeon. But if you’re a huge fan of dungeons, would you pass up the opportunity to see a real dungeon? If Andy Milligan is your thing, welcome to the dungeon. While I watch these films, I might break out the scissors and sewing machine and finally design that wild spring frock that I have been promising my wife since the summer of 1987.

Art inspires art.


  1. This sounds very intriguing, despite most of it sounding like nothing I would seek out to watch on my own. I must confess I was unfamiliar with Andy Mulligan until references to this very boxset started popping up the last few months on podcasts, this site, and Twitter. Thanks for breaking it down and explaining the appeal!

  2. A community theater film is an apt description of much of Andy Milligan's work. (Blood and Guru the Mad Monk feel like plays.) But I still enjoy it. Somehow knowing more about him makes his films more interesting. The Ghastly Ones is one that I have wanted to see for a long time.

    Fleshpot on 42nd Street is my favorite. The Vinegar Syndrome release of is worth picking up if you do not own this set. I was surprised to see it shown on TCM Underground this year, but that print lacked the more explicit parts. Even so, I cannot imagine what anyone who stumbled upon that at random would have thought. It is still a scuzzy movie in any form.