The Ghastly One:
Ask movie buffs to choose the worst director in film history and the vast majority will reflexively name Ed Wood Jr. With their incoherent plots, non sequitur dialogue, junkyard props, and deliriously inept performances, Wood’s notorious effusions seem to be the work of a benign lunatic handed a camera by an asylum art therapist. An Angora-obsessed ex-Marine transvestite who managed to write and direct a half-dozen low-budget features before his 1978 death, at 54, of chronic alcoholism, Wood appeared to be permanently enshrined as the janitor of the cinema’s sub-basement.
But Jimmy McDonough’s repulsively readable biography, The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, makes Wood seem as respectable as Steven Spielberg. Between 1965 and 1988, Milligan wrote, photographed, and directed 29 cheapjack movies, many of which have disappeared or survive only in scratched, duped, mutilated prints. Shot with primitive equipment on $10,000 budgets, Milligan’s exploitation pictures were aimed at Manhattan’s now-razed Times Square fleapits and disreputable rural drive-ins. The titles of his movies accurately reflect their tawdry, nihilistic content: Depraved!, The Degenerates, The Ghastly Ones, Gutter Trash, Bloodthirsty Butchers, Torture Dungeon, Fleshpot on 42nd Street. As recounted by McDonough, the filmmaker’s latter-day collaborator and friend, Milligan’s life story, which the author intersperses with transcriptions of taped rants by his subject, is every bit as rancid and bizarre as any of his films.
Born in 1929 in St. Paul, Minn., Milligan was an Army brat, the son of a passive, withdrawn father and an obese, manipulative mother whom he detested. (Describing the recurrent themes of Milligan’s screenplays, McDonough writes, “Whenever families gather, destruction ensues, and mother is the root of all evil. Andy’s Mommy-hatred is all-consuming—hell, even invigorating.”) Fleeing this dysfunctional environment, he served in the Navy, then escaped to New York, where he obtained a job with a touring children’s puppet troupe. At 22, he fell in love with a fellow puppeteer, initiating a stormy gay relationship that lasted three-and-a-half years. Returning to Manhattan, Milligan briefly switched to acting, appearing in television dramas with James Dean and Dorothy Gish, then became a couturier with shops on Madison Avenue and, later, in Greenwich Village, just around the corner from the Caffe Cino, the birthplace of off-off-Broadway theater.
McDonough digresses from his chronicle of Milligan’s life for a fascinating account of the Caffe Cino’s rise and fall. (In addition to interviews with an army of the filmmaker’s associates and acquaintances, the author’s research, extensive enough to produce several additional books, yields a detailed history of American exploitation movies and mini-biographies of Milligan’s stock company of outlandish performers.) Opening in the late ’50s, Joe Cino’s tiny coffeehouse became a showcase for controversial productions of classic plays and groundbreaking works by new dramatists, among them John Guare, Tom O’Horgan, and Lansford Wilson. Milligan was one of Cino’s house directors, indulging his appetite for sadomasochism by provoking his actors to engage in unfeigned onstage violence. Gradually, the venue devolved into a refuge for speed freaks and sexual transgressors, folding in 1968 after Cino, apparently stoned out of his mind, eviscerated himself with a knife.
Employing actors from his theater productions, Milligan switched to cranking out skid-row-budgeted soft-core sexploitation quickies for producers who pitched their unsavory wares to Times Square grind houses. “Andy slapped his movies together,” McDonough observes, “with nary a thought for pacing, with dialogue that sounds like it was recorded via tin can, and stories that often suffer from holes you can drive a truck through. If a film’s climactic denouement was too costly to shoot, Milligan merely alluded to it, or worse, used a poorly shot take where you can’t see what happens anyway.”
Milligan shot with a 16 mm Auricon camera, loaded with snippets of film stock left over from mainstream productions, that recorded unsynchronized images and sound on a single optical strip. The resulting footage made seamless editing impossible—a problem he ineffectively attempted to conceal by overlaying cheesy stock music. With their garbled, often incomprehensible dialogue tracks and Cuisinart continuity, Milligan’s movies are arguably the crudest productions ever to receive commercial exhibition. Yet their formal incompetence feels oddly suited to Milligan’s screenplays, in which weak men are outwitted by conniving, deceitful women, and authority figures—parents, doctors, priests—abuse their positions to molest, lie, cheat, and murder. “Empathy,” McDonough points out, “is reserved for society’s freaks—hunchbacks, cripples, and other disadvantaged souls portrayed as innocents who’ve been fatally damaged by the world. But the often violent nature of these outcasts usually does them in as well….There are few happy endings in Andy’s films, and frequently everyone is dead by the final frame.”
Although his private life overflowed with sadistic and orgiastic exploits, Milligan was oddly prudish about depicting explicit sex in his movies. By the late ’60s, when the exhibition of hard-core pornography became legally viable, he had shifted to making slasher pictures, bloody revenge sagas in which nearly all the characters are maimed, butchered, or disemboweled. In 1968, he decamped for England, where he shot five gorefests, and, McDonough suspects, may have murdered a leather-clad S&M pickup by nailing him to a tree and leaving him to bleed to death. “At times,” McDonough recalls, “I got the distinct feeling Milligan was insinuating that he had something to do with the affair, although when pressed for details he immediately clammed up. Interestingly enough, there is a scene in The Body Beneath [the film Milligan was directing when the English press reported the torture killing] in which Berwick Kaler is nailed to a tree and left to suffer.”
Milligan came home after several years to find the exploitation market drying up. In 1977, after predictably disastrous attempts to bring haute couture and a drag stage production of The Importance of Being Earnest to the outer reaches of Staten Island, Milligan scraped together enough money to purchase a dilapidated Times Square building and opened the Troupe Theater. Over the next seven years, he directed more than 250 plays, a mixture of vintage dramas and original scripts, in a mouse-infested firetrap that lacked heat and air conditioning. Milligan resided in a squalid apartment above the theater and became involved with Dennis John Malvasi, an illiterate Vietnam vet who was subsequently arrested for his involvement in abortion-clinic bombings.
In 1985, when the Troupe Theater collapsed, Milligan, impoverished and weary, moved to Hollywood, where he briefly opened yet another dress shop and attempted to jump-start his career as a movie director. At this point, McDonough entered his life. In the early ’80s, he wrote for what he deems “a noxious publication called Sleazoid Express…[which] wasn’t interested in any hapless attempt to justify exploitation films by mainstream terms—we knew this stuff was toxic, which is precisely what made it compelling.” Milligan was one of the filmmakers the magazine endorsed. McDonough braved several visits to the Troupe Theater to review Milligan’s plays and, while on vacation with a girlfriend, drove hours to watch, with four other patrons, the director’s 1972 The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! at D.C.’s Howard Theatre. During the course of a series of telephone interviews in 1978, Milligan invited New York-based McDonough, who had just obtained a union card and was employed as a sound editor on major studio productions, to come to Hollywood and work on his next movie, Monstrosity. McDonough eagerly agreed and became part of Milligan’s inner circle.
The three projects Milligan was able to complete in California flopped, and he could no longer find backers. Down on his luck, he fell in love again, this time with Wayne Keeton, a misshapen, sociopathic prostitute from Louisiana. AIDS claimed Keeton in 1989, and the following year Milligan contracted the disease. He managed to hang on, subsisting on handouts from friends and refusing to take any medication, until his death in June 1991.
It takes a strong stomach to pick up The Ghastly One and an even stronger will to put it down. One rarely turns a page without discovering some jaw-dropping example of dementia or depravity. There’s the 300-pound lesbian puppet-theater set designer whose pet rabbit devoured her hair, the sexually compulsive actor who bragged about being penetrated by a Great Dane, the wizened Village art-dealer pedophile who spiked his omelets with the semen of 12-year-old boys, the young actor-painter who died of a drug overdose and was consumed by his cats. Throughout, McDonough’s tone alternates between critically detached (in his attempts to provide cultural and historical contexts for Milligan’s work) and guardedly sympathetic (in his accounts of his fraught relationship with the exasperating filmmaker). He recalls his subject, not long before his death, weeping while watching Cathy Rigby in a touring stage production of Peter Pan and then, minutes later, turning to the mothers of two restless children and bellowing, “Jesus Christ! Don’t you two bitches know anything about raising children!?! Fucking cunts.”
One of The Ghastly One’s highlights is McDonough’s account of gay misogynist Milligan’s 1968 marriage to North Carolina-born Candy Hammond, who appeared in several of his films. (Hammond’s bemused explanation for his motive: “He had decided that in his line of business a wife was an asset….So he just decided that this was something he needed—and he decided that I would be just as good as anyone else.”) The wedding ceremony was held in the ramshackle Staten Island Victorian house that served as Milligan’s residence and movie set. Hammond was given away by her boyfriend, who kept urging her to change her mind. According to one guest, the bride’s “tits were full of people’s phone numbers” as she marched down the aisle. Afterward, she chugged a bottle of champagne, which she refused to share with her new spouse, while, as another observer recalls, “there was a lot of cocksucking going on in the attic.” The guests stole all of the wedding gifts. Milligan celebrated the nuptial night by going off to a gay bar alone, and shortly afterward, Hammond embarked on a solo honeymoon, traveling in steerage to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth.
Any reader staunch enough to reach the epilogue of this twisted saga, in which McDonough ventures to St. Paul nearly a decade after Milligan’s demise to uncover ancestral skeletons, including pedophilia and sexual abuse, will be curious to see some of his subject’s movies. Spare yourself the trip to Blockbuster, whose Web site lists only one minor Milligan title to rent. To obtain his signature works, you have to seek out a psychotronic-video store or purchase copies from a mail-order source. Pop in a cassette and you’ll witness the element of Milligan’s mind-boggling directorial style: Undercranked handheld camerawork that only occasionally manages to locate its intended subject. Color tones that, in a single cut, change from murky to bleached-out. Obliquely framed dramatic sequences that shift angles for no discernible purpose. Soundtracks inexplicably mixing jaunty elevator music with barely audible voices. Preposterous gore simulations involving mannequin parts and pints of ketchup. McDonough admits, “When Andy’s movies are bad, there’s nothing—nothing—worse. If one looks at them with the expectations of a ‘real’ movie—or the kind of velvet painting-bad thrills associated with many exploitation movies—one will be frustrated.”
But the impulse to dismiss Milligan’s work as technically barbaric rubbish is quelled by the unrelenting bleakness of his misanthropy. As McDonough astutely notes, “Milligan’s no-budget films are a world unto themselves, possessing a grim, grimy reality not unlike a novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., or Louis-Ferdinand Celine.” Surprisingly well-acted, in contrast to their formal ineptitude, these terrible movies insidiously creep under the skin, offering smeary, chilling glimpses of existence as perceived in moments of profound despair. Milligan forged something usually achieved by far greater artists—an unmistakably personal vision. The remnants of his filmography are the ghastly legacy of a man whom McDonough compassionately commemorates in the closing lines of this gripping book: “Andy Milligan screamed his soul out in his dime-store creations. It was the wail of a banshee, of a werewolf, of a shrieking skeleton mocking the black night. A voice too painful for the world to hear.” CP