To many British cinephiles of a certain age, Andy Milligan’s name is known primarily for his lurid 1968 picture Blood Rites (aka The Ghastly Ones), filmed near Milligan’s own Staten Island home, which ended up on the official ‘Video Nasties’ list owing to its gruesome, deliriously homegrown scenes of carnage. Most of Milligan’s films were made on a zero budget, with a ‘make do and mend’ ethos, on or near his home turf of Staten Island, New York. However, between August 1968 and 1970, Milligan shot no less than five films in the UK – beginning with Nightbirds and The Body Beneath for producer Leslie Elliot, and extending into Bloodthirsty Butchers, The Man with Two Heads and The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!
Following his British pictures, Milligan returned to the US and shot his first 35mm production, Guru, the Mad Monk (1970). Milligan’s first film under his own production company (Nova), Guru, the Mad Monk was released as a double feature with The Body Beneath; and over the next few years, Milligan’s British productions would be released (and re-released) by William Mishkin, the notorious New York-based distributor of sexploitation films, often with newly-shot scenes. In particular, The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! began as a story about a family of werewolves, titled Curse of the Full Moon. This, at least, was the narrative Milligan shot in the UK. However, the film was extended by footage shot in Milligan’s own Staten Island home (which he dubbed ‘Hollywood Central’, and where he also shot his unconventional 1973 vampire film Blood): back in America, at the behest of Mishkin, Milligan filmed a series of new scenes in which Hope Stansbury visits a shady salesman, Mr Micawber (‘Chris Shore’; in reality, believed to be a heavily disguised Andy Milligan himself, acting under a nom de guerre), to buy rats. These scenes were a clear attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Daniel Mann’s 1971 rat-themed horror film Willard.
Prior to Blood Rites (1968), Milligan’s work was mostly in the field of melodrama and sexploitation, with some influence from New Wave cinemas. His first film, the short Vapors (1968), was written by frequent collaborator Hope Stansbury, and is a profoundly impactful study of the denizens of a gay bathhouse in New York – shot in a manner that is, deliberately or otherwise, very sympathetic to Neo-Realism. Vapors is an incredibly little film, a clear riposte to those who suggest Milligan was a naïve filmmaker and dramatist.
At the time of the production of Vapors, Milligan – who had a bent for the theatre (specifically Off-Off-Broadway and the Warhol-esque Caffe Cino group with which he worked in the ‘60s) – was working in the dressmaking business but decided to branch out into filmmaking; he bought a 16mm camera, an Auricon single system sound-on-film camera, for $700, and it was this camera on which many of his films were shot. He photographed his first feature, Liz (1967), over four months; when it was completed, he managed to book a screening of it at the Player’s Theater in MacDougal Street, Manhattan, which was attended by William Mishkin. Impressed with the film, Mishkin persuaded Milligan to shoot some more scenes of female nudity. These were inserted into the picture, and it was released by Mishkin as The Promiscuous Sex in 1967.
Those early US films of Milligan are very personal, and clearly in tune with the various European New Wave movements. Sadly, a number of them are considered ‘lost’, supposedly destroyed by their producer at least partially as a result of a falling out with Milligan.
Undeniably rough around the edges, Milligan’s approach to filmmaking crude and un-artistic, Blood Rites has frustrated and confused horror fans for decades. In Danse Macabre (1981, Everest House), his overview of the horror genre, Stephen King once labelled Blood Rites as ‘the work of morons with cameras.’ Like many of Milligan’s films, the picture was shot crudely, on 16mm film: actually, most of Blood Rites was shot on ‘short ends’ (ie, leftover bits and pieces of 16mm film from other local productions). Sound was recorded ‘live’ on the Auricon single system camera Milligan had purchased in the early 1960s. The gore effects were achieved using animal offal. Many of the actors were non-professionals. Milligan, whose primary interest was apparently in theatre, supposedly cared very little about the photography of his films – which resulted in him staging scenes in a very ‘flat’ and theatrical manner, and marrying absurd moments of mayhem with wordy dialogue and little bits of business of the kind that work well in panto, for instance, but which seem out of place in a horror film.
With Blood Rites, his first colour picture, Milligan transitioned into the world of horror filmmaking and carved a niche that he would return to throughout his career: horror stories with period settings, which enabled him to practise skills acquired during his previous career as a dressmaker. (Milligan told Bill Landis when interviewed for Fangoria, that with Blood Rites, he realised that films with period settings made more commercial sense because they could be rereleased without concerns about the pictures being seen as dated owing to the fashions worn by the actors.) Perhaps inevitably, Milligan’s British films also cross this divide. His first production in the UK was Nightbirds (1970): though this, like Milligan’s cult Seeds (aka Seeds of Sin, 1968), is ostensibly not a horror film (at least, not in terms of its outer form – settings, locations and iconography), it is arguably one of his most disturbing and horrific stories. In the Landis interview, Milligan highlighted the fact that Nightbirds was shot ‘four doors down from the third victim of Jack the Ripper [presumably, Elizabeth Stride]’, with the Ten Bells pub – where Jack the Ripper is rumoured to have met more than one of his victims – visible in the background during Nightbirds’ opening scenes.
Nightbirds tells the story of Dink (Berwick Kaler, whose presence anchors Milligan’s British films) and Dee (Julie Shaw, who only appears to have screen acting credits in this and Pete Walker’s The Big Switch). Dee finds the naïve Dink homeless on the streets of London, and she invites him to stay with her in her dingy flat. Dee initiates the innocent, virginal Dink into the world of sex – but Dink is reluctant, and possibly conflicted about his own sexuality. (Milligan himself was gay, and his films often feature characters who repress their sexuality or desublimate it.) Despite this, in a memorably uncomfortable sequence Dee ‘trains’ Dink to pleasure her through cunnilingus. This, clearly, is not the basis for a healthy relationship, and Dee and Dink begin to argue and display excessive jealousy: Dink is jealous of Dee’s relationship with her sleazy landlord, Ginger (Bill Clancy); and Dee is jealous of Dink’s odd relationship with the older, blowsy ex-prostitute Mabel (Elaine Shore), who Dink – though claiming to see Mabel as a mother figure – admits gives him a ‘hard-on’.
Like all of Milligan’s films, there are some autobiographical elements in Nightbirds. Milligan’s mother, an alcoholic, was by all accounts domineering and abusive; this character type recurs throughout Milligan’s body of work – perhaps most notably in Seeds, in the role of the matriarch who assembles various family members for a Christmas celebration that swiftly evolves into an orgy of verbal cruelty, debauchery, incest and murder. (‘A bad seed comes from a diseased plant’, is the battle-cry of Seeds which echoes throughout Milligan’s oeuvre, as is the unforgettable line, ‘I love you so much, I could kill you.’) In Nightbirds, it is established early on that Dink, like Milligan, suffered abuse from his alcoholic mother, and this has made him uncomfortable in the company of women. ‘She’s extremely dominant. I can’t do anything without her say,’ Dink says in reference to his dear old mum. In entering a relationship with Dee, nevertheless, Dink finds himself in the thrall of another controlling mother figure, and Dee increasingly begins to treat Dink as if he were a child.
Milligan offsets Dink and Dee’s relationship with Dink’s discovery of an ailing pigeon. Dink takes the animal in, much to Dee’s consternation, and attempts to nurse it to good health. His relationship with the bird seems to mirror Dee’s relationship with Dink. However, Dee’s behaviour becomes more explicitly destructive. At one point, Dee encounters a blind busker in the street and asks how he is. ‘You should know,’ he tells her bitterly. This leads into the film’s climactic revelation: though Dee has told Dink she is an orphan, she has in fact run away from her wealthy parents after she gave birth to a baby by her lover Jack, who has syphilis. The baby, Dee is told by her mother, in a telephone call, ‘is in a home. They don’t think it will live long.’ ‘I don’t think I will miss having children,’ Dee asserts coldly. Milligan leaves the film’s viewer with this revelation that Dee is, to use the parlance of 2020, a ‘super spreader’: coldly sharing the gift of syphilis by seducing naïve and sexually inexperienced young men such as Dink. (The encounter with the busker suggests that Dink is simply the most recent of Dee’s victims.) Though externally, the film is not a horror film, this final revelation – and Dee’s cold abandonment of her own child, and dismissal of its impending death – is more horrific than almost anything in Milligan’s horror pictures. In Nightbirds, Milligan consolidates a broader meta-narrative within his films as a whole – both the horror pictures and his earlier avant-garde melodramas – which focuses on passive, frustrated men and their relationships with overbearing, often alcoholic women: mostly mothers, wives and lovers who are verbally and emotionally abusive towards the menfolk in their lives.
Prior to shooting Nightbirds, Milligan had made Torture Dungeon, also lensed in 1969. Though shot in the US, Torture Dungeon was set in medieval England. A lurid tale of cross and double-cross, about the Duke of Norwich’s (Gerald Jacuzzo, who had starred in Milligan’s gay-themed short ‘Vapors’) devious plans to take the throne of England, Torture Dungeon features some outrageous violence and hints at Milligan’s own unabashed taste for S&M: in one scene, the Duke of Norwich’s companion ‘Ivan the Hunchback’ (Richard Mason) rolls on the floor and – as if auditioning for the lead role in Howard Brenton’s then-new play Christie in Love – mimes masturbation in front of a hunky labourer dressed only in a loincloth, who then proceeds to wordlessly whip him. (One wonders if Paul Morrissey had this film in mind when making his outrageously parodic double-bill Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula in 1973/4.) Torture Dungeon also features some bizarre dialogue, intimations of incest, and co-stars the barely-contained cleavage of Susan Cassidy, who also played in Milligan’s Seeds (1968), Gutter Trash (1969) and Bloodthirsty Butchers. In addition to Milligan’s patented blend of caustic bickering, no-fi gore, and quasi-elegant home-sewn costumes, this movie also includes arguably the most memorable line of dialogue that the deranged filmmaker ever penned. At one point in the narrative, the Duke of Norwich declares, ‘I live for pleasure. Only second to power, of course. And I’ll try anything. I’m not a homosexual; I’m not a heterosexual. I’m not even asexual. I’m try-sexual… I’ll try anything for pleasure.’ The overall effect is like Shakespeare’s Richard III if the play was co-written by an S&M fetishist and performed by a group of panto professionals hopped up on goofballs.
In the US, Torture Dungeon was released on a double-bill with Bloodthirsty Butchers. Milligan even worked a very brief ‘plug’ for this double-bill into his 1973 film Fleshpot on 42nd Street (which is about the most shamelessly un-erotic pornographic film this side of Roberta Findlay’s XXX roughies): in that picture, transvestite prostitute Cherry Lane (Neil Flanagan) suggests to the film’s protagonist, Dusty Cole (Laura Cannon), that they ‘go see Torture Dungeon playing on a double bill with Bloodthirsty Butchers down at The Waverly.’
Nightbirds was the first of two films Milligan completed for London-based producer Lucas Elliot, who had met Milligan in New York whilst travelling the world with the aim of finding films for his company Compton Films to distribute in the UK. Elliot had been introduced to Milligan by film distributor Jerry Balsam. (Milligan says, in the aforementioned interview with Bill Landis, that Mishkin refused to introduce Milligan to Elliot.) Milligan pitched several films to Elliot, including The Weirdo, which Milligan ultimately made in 1989 – one of Milligan’s last films before his death in 1991 of AIDS-related complications. Elliot contracted Milligan to make three films a year over a five year period. However, after The Body Beneath, the second of his pictures for Elliot, Milligan parted ways with Elliot following a disagreement with Elliot’s father, Curtis Elliot. (By all accounts, Lucas and Curtis Elliot seem to have had a turbulent relationship.) Curtis Elliot took the reins of the business and defaulted on the company’s contract with Milligan. Milligan would make a further three films in the UK, apparently under an agreement with Mishkin, before returning to the States.
The Body Beneath and The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!
Both The Body Beneath and The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! were shot predominantly at Sarum Chase, a Grade II-listed neo-Tudor mansion in Hampstead that, a year earlier, had served as the location for photographer Michael Joseph’s photoshoot with the Rolling Stones for their album Beggars Banquet. (The Body Beneath also features some memorable footage shot guerrilla-style – ie, without a filming permit – in Highgate Cemetery.) Stephen Thrower has suggested that Milligan may have happened across Sarum Chase whilst ‘cruising’ on Hampstead Heath. Thrower has also suggested that Milligan may have been drawn to the location by the story of Joseph de Havilland, a Hungarian interior decorator who consented to let his flatmates crucify him in Hampstead Heath – either, it has been speculated, as part of a sex game, or with the intention of photographing the ritual and making an income by selling the images to the press. (Joseph de Havilland survived, and the men who committed the act were defended by David Jacobs, the openly gay solicitor who gained a reputation for representing clients who wished to keep secret their sexuality – bearing in mind that male homosexuality had only recently been decriminalised in the UK. Only months later, Jacobs was found at his home in Hove, hanged by a satin cord; his death was declared a suicide, though some sources have suggested that the Krays, who Jacobs had refused to represent, may have had a hand in his death.) Certainly, in The Body Beneath Milligan seemed to pay homage to this event by including in the narrative the crucifixion of Berwick Kaler’s character, who is nailed to a tree by Gavin Reed.
Both The Body Beneath and The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! deal with families who are afflicted with a supernatural ‘curse’, and who have become obsessed with maintaining the purity of their bloodline. In the former film, the family are afflicted with vampirism; in the latter, they are werewolves.
In The Body Beneath, Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed) has recently returned from the US to take up residence in the family home of Carfax Abbey (Sarum Chase), on Hampstead Heath. However, he is not alone. Ford, and the rest of his clan – including three predominantly silent, blue-faced women who always appear to their victims in a group – are vampires. His intention is to make contact with the family’s descendants, who are unaware of the family’s connection with vampirism and find a suitable woman with whom a selected group of men will sire a new generation of vampires. The bloodline, Ford asserts, has been ‘dissipated’ by inter-marriage. After testing and eliminating a number of non-vampire relatives, Ford sets his sights on the pregnant Susan (Jackie Skarvellis). However, in targeting Susan and her fiancé Paul (Richmond Ross), Ford may have bitten off more than he can chew.
The Fords have, Rev. Ford claims, been vampires for twenty-one centuries – stretching back to the Roman occupation of Britain. Highgate Cemetery and the nearby Carfax Abbey have been their home turf since the First Century, and the Fords return every 40 years. In the film’s opening sequence, the three Ford sisters (who appear in flowing gowns, their skin covered in blue makeup) set upon Anna Ford (Susan Clark) in Highgate Cemetery, in a scene shot without permits. (This was an act for which Milligan and his crew were reputedly chased out of the cemetery.) The trio of Ford sisters brings to mind the three witches in Macbeth or the three Furies of The Iliad. Though Milligan’s technique is often mocked, to be fair, the appearances of the Ford sisters are arguably no less absurd than those of the female vampires in, say, Jean Rollin’s Fascination (1978).
Ford’s plan is rooted in eugenics and seems a thinly-veiled allegory for Nazism and its focus on Übermenschen. However, like most naïve interpretations of history, this sidesteps the fact that eugenics was practised throughout many societies – including the sterilisation of African American women, Latina women and Native Americans in the US during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. ‘You will have beautiful children,’ Ford tells Susan, ‘Perfect children for our cause. Everyone will be godlike in appearance. We shall all continue into eternity.’
Milligan’s film contains some excellent ideas: for example, the notion that Ford tries to stave off the negative effects of his vampirism (eg, an aversion to sunlight) through regular blood transfusions. (‘I can’t stand the daylight,’ he says, ‘To think we have to submit to this daily ordeal in order to survive the damn daylight.’) Bram Stoker’s Dracula had featured a memorable blood transfusion that was underplayed in most vampire films – aside, perhaps, from Henry Cass’ Blood of the Vampire (1958) – but Milligan brings it to the foreground of the narrative. Instead of depicting the transfusion as a cure for vampirism, Milligan shows the transfusion as a means of extending Ford’s longevity and abilities. Milligan would depict the act of blood transfusion in a similar way in The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! and his 1973 vampire film Blood, shot in the US. (Similar ideas would appear, of course, in later vampire films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) and Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1999).)
Like Torture Dungeon, The Body Beneath features another put-upon hunchback: Spool, played by Berwick Kaler, who is Ford’s servant/assistant. Spool’s back was broken as a child by his cruel stepmother and stepbrother, who pushed him in front of a bus. A pitiful creature, Spool is caught trying to help Ford’s captives escape, and in the aforementioned nod towards the crucifixion of Joseph de Havilland on Hampstead Heath, Ford punishes Spool by crucifying him to a tree.
The film also features a climactic ‘conference’ of vampires that is led by Rev. Ford. Resembling a Renaissance fair of the kind particularly popular in the US, this ‘conference’ is essentially an eerie night-time gathering of vampires at Highgate Cemetery. They feast at a table – on human corpses. The photography is distorted, Doctor Who-style, by what appears to be Vaseline smeared on the camera lens – resulting in a vignette-like effect. The overall impact is highly trippy and confusing, like the Mardi Gras sequence from Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). When Rev. Ford suggests the family should relocate to America, because it seems the police may be closing in, Elizabeth (Judith Heard) protests, ‘What is America? What is it made of? Pimps? Prostitutes? Thrown out of England just a few short centuries ago! They’re the scum of the earth!’
As mentioned above, The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! was, like The Body Beneath, filmed at Sarum Chase. However, it also shares some thematic similarities with its predecessor, in its focus on an aristocratic family that is cursed by a supernatural affliction. Again, in this film, we encounter a particularly toxic family: the Mooneys (an all-too-obvious name for a family of werewolves), headed by the ailing Pa Mooney (Douglas Phair). Pa’s children are Mortimer (Noel Collins), Monica (Hope Stansbury) and Malcolm (Berwick Kaler). Another of Milligan’s put-upon hunchbacks, Malcolm is kept chained in a room, where he is frequently visited by his sister Monica – who seems to take a fetishistic delight in taunting and beating him. Monica’s abuse of Malcolm extends to whipping him and dripping hot candle wax onto his body: this strange sub/dom relationship between siblings hints at the themes of incest and S&M that bubble beneath the surface of many of Milligan’s pictures.
As in Seeds and a number of other Milligan films – not to mention the Fords in The Body Beneath – the Mooneys are, to say the least, dysfunctional. The children, particularly Monica, are selfish and spoilt: as Mortimer says, ‘Monica hates everything and everyone. It’s just one big hate.’ However, Pa Mooney will not listen to the others’ criticism of Monica. (‘Monica’s my baby. She’ll always be my baby,’ Pa whines.)
The equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of Diana (Jackie Skarvellis), the half-sister of the other Mooney children, and Diana’s new husband, Gerald (Ian Innes). Pa refuses to accept Diana’s marriage to Gerald: ‘You’re not an ordinary woman’, Pa tells his daughter. Diana has been sent away to become a medical doctor and has returned to fulfil a promise that she would help her father with his ‘experiments’ – in reality, his development of a serum that will suppress the lycanthropy that runs through the family. However, Diana is regarded with disgust by Monica, who believes Diana should be excluded from their father’s will owing to the fact that she has a different mother. ‘I think we’re [the family is] on the verge of destroying ourselves!’, Diana asserts at one point, in a line that resonates throughout Milligan’s filmography.
As stated above, at the behest of distributor William Mishkin, after returning to the US Milligan shot some additional scenes to both extend the running time of the film and introduce a subplot involving rats that were intended to capitalise on the popularity of Willard. Clearly shot on different film stock, these scenes mesh poorly with the rest of the footage; and the first of these scenes in the finished picture sees a woman (visible onscreen only by her hands and torso) tormenting a rat with a large knife, before partially decapitating it – in a very real moment of onscreen animal cruelty – and then hammering a large nail through its torso, pinning its body to a wooden board. Later, we see Monica visiting Mr Micawber, in his apparently subterranean lair, in order to buy rats from him. (This seems to suggest that it was Monica who killed the rat in the earlier scene.)
Monica’s meeting with Micawber is typically Milligan-esque. Many of Milligan’s films have scenes that function essentially as sidebars: the narrative comes to a halt in order to allow Milligan’s characters to wax lyrical about a subject that is tangential to the plot. (This technique presumably grew naturally out of what seems to have been an enthusiasm by Milligan for writing quite theatrical monologues.) In the scene in which Monica speaks with Micawber, who is dressed in rags and lives in the darkness, Micawber detours into a speech about the merits of the work of Charles Dickens. (‘Dickens is a great writer. Wouldn’t you agree?’ he asks Monica, who is only interested in acquiring rats that she can torture and kill.) Micawber reveals that once, when he was drunk and fell asleep, he lost his arm to the rats that he keeps, ‘and part of my face, see?’ This was because the rats had developed a taste for human flesh: ‘I started feeding them flesh from birth. They know nothing else to eat.’
Monica takes two of the rats home and decides to call one of them Willard (what else?) and the other Ben: Ben was the 1972 sequel, directed by Phil Karlson, to Willard. However, Ben bites Monica, and she visits Micawber again, demanding her money back. He refuses: ‘I drank it all up,’ he tells her. In an act of spite, Monica lashes out at Micawber and sets him alight. The scene is made horrific by the incessant screaming of Micawber and the manic behaviour of Monica. ‘Burn! Burn!,’ she cries out as Micawber is consumed by the flames.
Setting actors on fire – a very real effect – is something else that recurs throughout Milligan’s body of work. It seems that the first time Milligan did this was in Blood Rites: in that film, Colin (Hal Borske) is set alight whilst trying to escape from the killer. Similar moments appear in several of Milligan’s subsequent pictures. Perhaps Milligan realised that such a visually impactful effect was relatively easy and cheap to achieve, though the willingness to set his actors on fire has sometimes been taken as an index of Milligan’s reputed sadism and misanthropy; but what is most disturbing about these scenes is the absolute sense of maniacal pleasure the other characters, such as Monica, seem to take from these moments. Aside from the sequence in which Monica kills Micawber, The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!, in fact, opens with a scene in which Malcolm is set alight by a pair of thugs, before being rescued by his siblings – resulting in Monica accusing Malcolm of being responsible for his own assault.
Bloodthirsty Butchers and The Man with Two Heads
Milligan’s two remaining British pictures, The Man with Two Heads and Bloodthirsty Butchers, revisit the well-worn narratives of, respectively, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and Sweeney Todd. However, though these are familiar stories, in the case of each film, Milligan provides his own, sordid spin on the material.
The Man with Two Heads opens in Victorian London with a scene in which a prostitute – not the moderately presentable prostitutes of, say, Hammer’s horror movies, but a genuinely coarse tart of the streets – approaches a man. ‘’Ello, ducks,’ she says, ‘Do you ’appen to know what time it is? It’s awful dark out ’ere. Why don’t we go to me room?’ Almost immediately, she is brutally attacked and killed. Milligan’s chaotic camerawork picks up glimpses of torn flesh – and the film swiftly establishes a milieu, common to many of Milligan’s pictures, in which sex is depicted as transactional, seedy and violent. Most obviously, the scene also alludes to the murders committed by Jack the Ripper, which appear to have been a source of fascination for Milligan – if his comments to Bill Landis about the filming locations for Nightbirds are anything to go by.
Soon, we are introduced to Dr William Jekyll (Dennis DeMarne) and his assistant, Jack Smithers (Berwick Kaler). Jekyll is a devout materialist and believes that ‘evil’ has a specific location within a person’s brain and can therefore be isolated and removed. He shares his experiments, including the dissection of the bodies and brains of criminals, with private students. (Owing to the radical nature of his ideas, he is unable to lecture in a university setting.) Jekyll informs his students that he has developed a serum designed to ‘treat the evil within an animal’s brain’ and intends to evolve this so that it may be applied to humans too.
Jekyll demonstrates this serum by injecting it into the brain of a recently deceased criminal – with the result that the ‘area of evil’ shows up in a shade of green: ‘The darker the shade, the more evil; the lighter, the lesser.’ If the formula is injected into a living person, Jekyll tells his students, evil will show through a green tinge of the skin. Developing the formula, Jekyll discovers what seems to be a cure for evil: injecting it into the criminal’s brain, he discovers the green ‘area of evil’ disappears. Working alone in the lab, Smithers accidentally knocks over a glass of water, obliterating Jekyll’s notes. Smithers attempts to write over the impressions on the page, recreating the formula. Using Smithers’ incorrect notes, an unknowing Jekyll mixes up another batch of his serum and, frustrated at the impossibility of testing it on a human subject, tests it on himself. However, the formula has the opposite effect: instead of obliterating evil, it transforms him into Danny Blood, a brutal sadist who torments and abuses prostitutes – taking particular interest in a pretty blonde named April (Julia Stratton).
Approximately ten years after Milligan’s The Man with Two Heads, in 1981, Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk directed Le cas étrange de Dr Jekyll et Miss Osbourne (also released as The Bloodbath of Dr Jekyll, Dr Jekyll et les femmes, Blood of Dr Jekyll and under numerous other titles). Borowczyk’s film foregrounded the sexual sadism of the character of Edward Hyde, the honourable Dr Jekyll’s alter-ego. (I wrote a lengthy piece for DVDCompare about Borowczyk’s film when it was released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy in 2015; this article can be found here.) This was something that many ‘respectable’ adaptations of Stevenson’s novel had downplayed or buried within the subtext. Milligan’s film, however, practically slaps the viewer across the face with the sadistic sexuality of Danny Blood. (Why Milligan chose not to use the name ‘Hyde’ is not entirely clear: perhaps he felt it too subtle.) Even the film’s title, The Man with Two Heads, foregrounds the film’s focus on sex. But if anything, this isn’t a sex picture: like many of Milligan’s films, it’s more of an anti-sex film. Every sex act depicted in the film is transactional and unfulfilling (or terrifying) for one or both participants.
Many of the film’s early sequences drag and are filmed in a very static manner. But when Jekyll transforms into Danny Blood and begins to prowl the streets, Milligan’s camera comes alive, and the venomous dialogue spits and bites. The scene in which Danny Blood encounters April for the first time takes place in a pub. April is propositioned by a leering man. She is snatched away by Blood, who handles her roughly, offering her money and groping her. ‘Call me Daddy,’ Blood leers, ‘Yes, call me Daddy [….] I’m from up North [….] Have you ever heard of de Sade?’ When April answers in the negative, Blood tells her: ‘Someone you should know about [….] He likes to do things to people sexually [….] I shall teach you some of the things that he taught. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’
Blood takes April ‘home’ and is verbally cruel to her, telling her to ‘wash that makeup off your face. You look like a cheap tramp’. ‘You always give them what they pay for, don’t you? And I pay you very well, don’t I?’ he sneers before hitting her full force with his vitriolic rhetoric: ‘You’re a cheap little slut. You know that, don’t you?’, Blood snarls, ‘You shouldn’t be allowed on the face of this earth. You’re scum!’
In his relationship with April, Blood seems more like an S&M dom. ‘There’s nothing a man likes more than to come home to a cigar, his beautiful wife, and dog,’ a seated Blood tells April, looking down at her, ‘Only you’re not so beautiful, and I don’t have a dog. You’ll be my doggy, eh? Nice doggy. Bark! Go on, bark!’ he commands before putting out his cigar on the nape of her neck. Shortly afterwards, Blood is shown prowling the streets of London, eventually finding and murdering a streetworker who approaches him for trade. From here, the film’s scenes of verbal and physical cruelty escalate. Much of this is meted out by Blood, but some of it is dished out by Carla (Jacqueline Lawrence), Jekyll’s shrill harridan of a sister – this character conforms to the broader archetype of the domineering female who makes an appearance in every Milligan picture.
All the while, Jekyll becomes increasingly aware of the activities of his nocturnal persona – and the verbally destructive nature of Danny Blood begins to bleed into Jekyll’s day-to-day life. In one scene, he cruelly and misogynistically admonishes a quiet female student, Victoria (Jennifer Summerfield), in front of her peers: ‘We all know you’re privileged to be a female medical student’, he says, ‘After all, we all know you should be at home, looking after snot-nosed little brats [….] What makes you think you should be a doctor, standing up there as if you know what you’re talking about? All women should be in bed… to be used.’ However, this being a Milligan film – where abuse becomes conflated with desire and love – though Victoria leaves the room in tears, she returns later and is, to quote Van Halen, ‘hot for teacher’: she asks for Jekyll’s assistance in writing an article for a publication and kisses him. (The kiss causes Jekyll to transform into Danny Blood: there is a less than subtle insinuation that female sexual contact is toxic.)
Despite his knowledge that the formula is transforming him into Danny Blood, Jekyll returns time and time again to drinking the serum – his actions like those of an alcoholic. (This, again, is another character type that appears throughout Milligan’s body of work.) As the film builds towards its climax, Milligan’s photography and editing become increasingly chaotic, and another character is set on fire whilst Danny Blood cackles maniacally. Towards the end of the film, Blood presides over a chaotic and depraved orgy, presented via a montage of shots of sex and violence – one indistinguishable from the other. The energy of these later scenes is in stark contrast with the film’s early sequences. Though the film references Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde most overtly, it seems that Milligan used the material to deliver a story fixated on S&M sex games. (That said, we must remember the stories about the genesis of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and particularly the revelation that Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, burnt her husband’s first draft after, apparently in disgust at its content, declaring it to be ‘a quire full of utter nonsense’.)
Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers also references a very recognisable narrative: the story of Sweeney Todd, the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’, which first appeared in the ‘penny dreadful’ serial The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance in 1846. Prior to Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers, the story of Sweeney Todd had been filmed several times – most memorably, in the lurid 1936 Tod Slaughter-starring picture Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by George King.
In Milligan’s version of the Sweeney Todd story, Todd is played by John Miranda (with the help of some enviable sideburns). Picking on itinerants and those without family, Todd murders his victims brutally in his barbershop. The bodies are passed to his neighbour, the piemaker Maggie Lovett (Jane Hilary), who without the knowledge of her invalid husband, John Lovett (Jonathan Holt), butchers the corpses and uses them in her prized pies. The spoils of these crimes are shared between Todd and Maggie. This carefully-devised business model starts to backfire, however, when Lovett’s customers begin to find hair and human body parts in their produce – something that is amplified by the interference of the Lovetts’ innocent employee Johanna (Annabella Wood) and her fiancé, sailor Jarvis (Michael Cox).
The film opens with lyrical Greensleeves-type music, lulling the audience into a false sense of security before taking us into a scene in the barbershop, where Todd slits the throat of an Irishman who has been in London for only two weeks, then uses a meat cleaver to hack off the corpse’s hand in order to take the victim’s ruby ring. Thus, Milligan establishes – to use the corporate parlance of our current era – the ‘mission statement’ of Todd and Lovett: Todd kills the victims, Lovett butchers them, and the pair share the victims’ money and jewellery.
Bloodthirsty Butchers offers a Milligan two-fer: there are not one but… count ‘em… two toxic families in this picture. Todd is put-upon by his shrewish wife, Becky (Linda Driver). Becky is an alcoholic who torments Todd emotionally, with the result that in one scene Todd lashes out, spitting in Becky’s face and slapping her. She falls to the floor – perhaps unconscious, possibly dead – and Todd strips her and subjects her to a sexual assault from which, thankfully, Milligan (or US distributor William Mishkin, who reputedly edited the film heavily in order to avoid any issues with the MPAA) cuts away. (In advance of Jarvis’ marriage to Johanna, Todd offers him a curt piece of advice: ‘That very first day you’re married, don’t let her have her own way.’) The Lovetts (and their family business), too, are highly dysfunctional. John Lovett, Maggie’s husband, is a kindly invalid who is cared for by the Lovetts’ female employee, Johanna, and abused by their other employee, the spiteful and sleazy Tobias (Berwick Kaler). Tobias’ treatment of the sweet and well-intentioned Mr Lovett, who appears wholly innocent of his wife’s crimes, borders on the sadistic – including, in one scene, cutting him. Meanwhile, poor Johanna is subjected to workplace harassment and, eventually, attempted rape by the cruel Tobias, though Maggie tries to persuade Johanna to ignore Tobias’ lecherous behaviour.
As the icing on this proverbial cake of unhappy relationships, Tobias also has a relationship with the naïve Rosie (Ann Arrow). When Rosie reveals that she is pregnant with his child, Tobias insists that she send her parents a letter stating that she is going on a holiday to Aberdeen. ‘I ain’t none too good at writing,’ poor Rosie declares. ‘You ain’t none too good at a lot of things. But you knows I loves ya,’ Tobias tells her with abject insincerity: ‘Make me a cheese sandwich, won’t ya, love? [….] You know I gets awful ’ungry before sex.’ With this, Tobias takes Rosie in a fatal embrace, plunging a knife into her back. Every romantic relationship in this film is toxic: a bed of fermentation for resentment and murderous impulses. With the sexual relationships in this film, in particular, but also in his other pictures, Milligan seems to offer a backhanded comment on the sexual licentiousness of the ‘free love’ era. His worldview may be dismissed by some as conservative – but, arguably, Milligan’s outwardly deadpan approach belies the layers upon layers of irony within his narratives. What Milligan deconstructs here, and in many of his other films, is the heteronormative depiction of sexual relationships; in this way, his films may be compared with the work of, say, Paul Morrissey (for example, Morrissey’s trilogy of Flesh, Trash and Heat) and, perhaps, a picture such as John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968) – a film by an equally uncompromising and independent filmmaker – which is a profoundly impactful study of a toxic marriage.
Ever the lover of the theatre, Milligan works into this narrative a sidebar story that focuses on Todd’s relationship with a showgirl, Anna (Susan Cassidy). Anna has a terse relationship with her employer, the lecherous Abe Fisk (a role credited to ‘David Pike’; but this writer feels near-certain that this, again, is Milligan acting under an adopted name). This enables Milligan to work into the picture a number of scenes set backstage at Fisk’s theatre, where Anna and Fisk engage in verbal fireworks. (‘You’re breaking me ’eart,’ Fisk whines; ‘You ’aven’t got an ’eart,’ Anna responds, ‘You’ve got a tuppence where yer ’eart should be.’) Like Danny Blood’s scenes in The Man with Two Heads, Fisk and Anna’s relationship resembles that of an S&M sub/dom couple. Threatening to leave the troupe, Anna forces Fisk to get on his knees, snarling ‘Look at me!’ She makes Fisk say ‘I adore you’ before she spits in his mouth! All the while, jaunty piano music plays in the background, offering an auditory counterpoint to the verbal and emotional cruelty taking place onscreen. These backstage scenes also feature a drag performer (another recurring character type in Milligan’s work), Corky (George Barry), who treats Anna sympathetically.
A wonderfully lurid picture, a number of Bloodthirsty Butchers’ moments of violence were reputedly curtailed by distributor William Mishkin – which is perhaps the exploitation cinema equivalent of painting over the Mona Lisa’s smile. Amidst the film’s many memorably gruesome incidents is a scene in which a young couple find a very intact and recognisable female breast (complete with nipple) in a pie bought from Maggie Lovett. (Aside from her other crimes, Maggie seems guilty of not preparing her pies properly.) The young couple takes said foodstuff to the local constabulary, which is the incident that blows the roof off the Todd-Lovett conspiracy. Bloodthirsty Butchers is, regardless of Mishkin’s attempt to take the picture off at the knees, a superb example of cinematic Grand Guignol, faithful to the spirit – if not the word – of its ‘penny dreadful’ source material.
… And with that, Andy Milligan returned to the US.
So what did Andy Milligan think of the differences between US and UK culture, and how one regards the other? Two scenes from Milligan’s British films, in particular, seem quite telling. In The Body Beneath, when Rev. Ford suggests the family should relocate to America because it seems the police may be closing in, one of the vampiric sisters, Elizabeth (Judith Heard), protests: ‘What is America? What is it made of? Pimps? Prostitutes? Thrown out of England just a few short centuries ago! They’re the scum of the earth!’ The final scene of Bloodthirsty Butchers echoes this scene. At the end of Bloodthirsty Butchers, having witnessed the cruel horrors of Sweeney Todd and Maggie Lovett’s treatment of their victims, Johanna and Jarvis reveal to a female friend their plans to go to America. Offering a dark mirror of Elizabeth’s summation of American culture in The Body Beneath, this woman says, without a trace of irony in her voice, ‘Oh, how exciting! It’s such a new country. But be careful: they’ve got Indians there. I hear tell they’re cannibals. They’ll cut your head off and… oh, I forget!’
Aside from the period settings, what arises out of these films is a lack of regard for conventional filmmaking technique – and an emphasis on period settings. Dialogue takes primary importance, betraying Milligan’s chief interest in the theatre. Amidst the carnage and Milligan’s clear love of dressmaking and costume design, the films break into some incredibly wordy scenes – like a panto in which the comedy is broken up by monologues that have Shakespearian aspirations. Every conversation becomes an argument; foreplay breaks out into outright hostilities; sex and murder become indistinguishable through the near-identical manner in which Milligan presents both; and every relationship – particularly, every heteronormative relationship – is filled with spite. Bubbling away in the background are allusions to S&M culture – which by all accounts was Milligan’s own peccadillo.
Truly independent, his sources of financing often mysterious, Milligan was a filmmaker who refused to compromise. Gay and apparently conflicted about many aspects of his life, it’s not too much of a stretch to compare him with the equally combative Rainer Werner Fassbinder. What is ironic about Milligan’s excursion to the UK is that, ultimately, none of his British films would be distributed theatrically in Britain, owing to the outbreak of hostilities between Milligan and Curtis Elliot. His work is often discussed alongside the pictures of gore pioneer H. G. Lewis, but – and this is in no way to diminish Lewis’ pictures – Milligan’s films seem more centred on some core debates at the heart of the human experience: principally, our relationships with our sexual partners and our families… and, perhaps, with ourselves: the hidden aspects of our personalities, and our secret sadistic and/or masochistic impulses. Perhaps most prophetically, in the 1982 interview with Bill Landis mentioned earlier, Milligan said that ‘Film, of course, will be out in another 40 years. It’ll all be video. Why should we be worried about celluloid and developing and all that crap when we have video. Film will be extinct in another 40 or 50 years, except in the archives. Remember that. This will be before we hit the year 2020 [….] There won’t be such a thing as film; it’ll be extinct. It won’t be called filmmaking, it’ll be called picturemaking or whatever. It’ll look the same and people won’t know the difference.’
‘Picturemaking’ or not, Milligan’s films deserve to find a consistent audience.
NB. Anyone interesting in Milligan’s films is urged to check out Jimmy McDonough’s superb biography, The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Andy Milligan.