By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Hal Borske, Carrie Anita and Michael Lunsford; Steve Burington, Jessica Straus and Naomi Sherwood
Directed by Andy Milligan
Written by Andy Milligan
There’s never been anyone else like Andy Milligan, and we can thank our lucky stars for that! Whether you’ve suffered his films as a personal challenge, lost respect for that one friend who insists that the man was a misunderstood genius, or are, yourself, one of those poor souls who would say they’re a fan of his work, there’s no denying that he was, for better and worse (oh so much worse) an unmatched voice from the underbelly of low-budget genre cinema. Though he made a total of twenty-seven films before his death in 1991, Milligan is still largely unknown, due not just to the unpalatability of his “style” and output, but also how difficult it has been to hunt down his work up until recently. With only about half of his feature films surviving to the present—thanks to the carelessness of 42nd street theater proprietors and Lew Mishkin, son of Milligan’s longtime distributor, who destroyed as many of his father’s client’s prints as he could get his hands on—the “gutter auteur” has remained fairly underground even as the filmmakers who could loosely be termed his stylistic contemporaries (Herschell Gordon Lewis, John Waters, and Frank Henenlotter) have risen in esteem. Lucky for the uninitiated, he’s been rescued from the brink of obscurity by the likes of Vinegar Syndrome, Nicolas Winding Refn (super-fan and director of THE NEON DEMON), and now, the folks at Garagehouse Pictures, who have just released two of the director’s most under-seen films, MONSTROSITY and WEIRDO: THE BEGINNING in stylish, limited-edition packages.
The earlier of the two features, MONSTROSITY (1987) is a modern-day golem story set on the mean streets of L.A. When his girlfriend is savagely raped and murdered by a gang of thugs, a med student and his two friends craft a freakish avenger named Frankie from human and gorilla parts. But the buffoonish abomination is more lover than fighter, and soon falls for Jamie, a sweet-spirited meth addict. Unfortunately for Frankie, his creators’ all-consuming desire for revenge will bring danger and destruction to he and his lady love.
Even for Andy, MONSTROSITY is real rough around the edges. His infamous abuse of the dutch angle is on full display, and the noise that passes for a score is all bongo drums and indiscriminate jabs at a keyboard. Played by sometime Milligan collaborator Hal Borske (who looks and acts like somebody dug up at the automat), Frankie a sight to see… dressed like a scarecrow with a werewolf arm, a matted Little Orphan Annie wig, stubby teeth, and a wonky eye that looks as if it was cut out of a magazine and pasted to his face. There’s little clarity or narrative sense in the editing, and the gore scenes are cut to pieces to hide their rudimentary effects.
In tone, MONSTROSITY is an outlier in Milligan’s filmography. Though he was a frequent dabbler in supernatural and science fiction plots, this is a more comic rendering of an oft-told tale—something that the director is especially ham-handed at. If there’s one thing that sells Milligan’s cinema (or makes it impossible to watch, depending on who you are) it’s his perspective as a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope. His existence was a hard one, full of shattered dreams and childhood abuse, and his end was a perfect capper to his life of pain: in 1991, he died of AIDS in abject poverty, and was buried in an unmarked, common grave in L.A. Suffice it to say, the man didn’t exactly have a chance to develop a funny bone, and though his movies are unintentionally hilarious at times, MONSTROSITY’s attempts at wide-eyed humor among so much gloom and bile makes it an uncommonly cringe-y watch. There is something of the flavor of John Waters’ own grubby fairytale DESPERATE LIVING (1977) in the goofy performances of Frankie and Jamie (as well as Angelo, the Cheshire-grinning guardian angel who tries to save them…not kidding) but Milligan is far more conservative, blunt, and mean-spirited than Waters, and uses the forceful corruption of Frankie as an indictment of a brutal world that stamps out innocence like a daisy under the monster’s own scuffed platform boots.
On the other hand, THE WEIRDO (aka WEIRDO: THE BEGINNING) is firmly in Milligan’s wheelhouse and tells the story of Donny: a handsome young simpleton who is used and abused by just about everyone with a pulse. Roughed up by meatheads, abandoned by his parents, and living in a shed, Donny sees an escape from his miserable existence when he meets Jenny, a sweet girl whose leg brace and abundance of modest outfits mark her as too good to survive the final reel. When their budding love is threatened by the local clergy, town bullies, and Donny’s own depraved mother, something snaps inside the young man and he goes on a killing spree.
Unlike MONSTROSITY, there’s little humor to be found in THE WEIRDO, which feels like a companion piece to NIGHTBIRDS (1970) and FLESHPOT ON 42ND STREET (1973), earlier efforts from Milligan about young people futilely searching for love and acceptance. There’s also something of 1968’s SEEDS (the director’s finest work if there is one) in Donny’s nasty, alcoholic mother—an archetype he returns to again and again throughout his cinema which was influenced by his own sour relationship with his mother. Though Milligan would make one more film after THE WEIRDO (the abysmal SURGIKILL), it’s a solid summation of the director’s stylistic, thematic, and narrative obsessions that shows more competency behind the camera than most of his output, making fine use of his signature jarring cuts to black and overripe performances.
Both films are presented in HD for the first time and restored from the original camera negative. Overall, MONSTROSITY looks passable (the source material is certainly to blame), but THE WEIRDO is actually quite a stunner. Not only is the restoration quite pristine—as evidenced by a side-by-side comparison presentation on the disc—but the film’s woodsy Fall setting is really quite picturesque. Both discs come with a bevy of special features, including a two-part interview with makeup artist Rodd Matsui, two hours of never-before-seen outtakes, and various audio commentaries with producers and biographers. The best of these is found on MONSTROSITY and features Jimmy McDonough, author of the biography responsible for the new surge in interest in Milligan, The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, and close personal friend to the director toward the end of his life. These All-Region discs are housed in stylish limited edition slipcovers by Justin Miller, which are limited to just 1000 units.
In the final moments of THE WEIRDO, a character wails “Why can’t everyone be nice to one another?” For all the misanthropy, violence, male chauvinism, self-loathing, incest, parricide, and plain-old-hatred on display in Andy Milligan’s filmography, that’s really the question at the center of his cinema, as he believes the world is shit, because people are shit. He may have been–by all accounts–a miserable bastard of limited talent and means, but it’s hard to deny that there’s something fascinating, even vital and earnest in Milligan’s visions of human meanness and neglect–his black heart fastened with a rusted pin to his crusty sleeve. It’s not easy to defend him, as he was a woefully untalented, wannabe artist, whose films can only be enjoyed by developing, to quote Tim Lucas, “a loathing toward traditional forms of cinema.” Yet, at the same time, his work is beautifully profane, and occasionally, amidst all the strident performances, background fuzz and casual cruelty emerge moments of gutter poeticism. In these brief glimmers of greatness, his films feel less like something labored over, and more like something a crazed mind retched directly and fully-formed onto celluloid.Those moments may be few and far between in MONSTROSITY and THE WEIRDO, but these rarely seen late-career efforts are must-owns for Milligan devotees (all five of ya!) and worth a look for anyone intrigued by the jerry-rigged cinema of “the ghastly one.” There’s never been anything else like it, and may there never be again!