The term “cult cinema” seems like too broad a blanket until you discuss Andy Milligan, an abrasive trashmonger who made shoddy 16mm endurance tests that played in ye olde exploitation theatres. Watch one of his films and wonder, “Just who could possibly comprise this audience?” The picture quality, even after a digital transfer, is blotchy and coarse, even if the scene wasn’t hideously lit; it’s almost as though the content doesn’t want to be seen. The sound is recorded onto the film, so its warble is masked by a relentless musical score. The dialogue, mostly incessant yelling, goes on forever, between his oddball regulars from Off-Off-Broadway. And when the violence routinely does occur, as promised by the films’ infinitely more garish posters, it’s shot and edited with great haste, as though it’s not worth sitting through. The camera would even spin away. Then there’s more yapping, and when the very long seventy-five or so minutes wrap up, you’re not smitten by the outrageousness or campiness, because neither are there. When they played in Times Square in the 1960s and 70s, there was neither booing nor cheering, just befuddled silence. “Exploitation,” writes Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough, “was no joke to Andy.”
“I don’t know whether I had enjoyed it,” director and historian Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case; the recent documentary That’s Sexploitation!) tells me over the phone. He’s referring to the first time he saw Bloodthirsty Butchers, part of a Milligan double bill with Torture Dungeon, at a Long Island theatre in 1970. Though he had seen a lot of bad movies, Henenlotter was in shock. But when he later saw The Ghastly Ones at that same theatre, he discovered that Milligan “was, in a perverted way, an auteur.” Despite acknowledging the Herculean effort of getting through Milligan’s films, Henenlotter finds their unpolished, anti-Hollywood nature part of the appeal. “His films are an assault,” Henenlotter says, “but the more you see his films the more fascinating they become. [Milligan] seemed to really hate humanity.”
Bloodthirsty Butchers, though not Milligan’s best-known—or even most colorful—title, plays this Tuesday, August 9 at Anthology Film Archives, in an event mounted by the team from the imminently arriving Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn. Playing on a 35mm blowup print from American Genre Film Archive, with Henenlotter himself introducing, Butchers falls into Alamo’s ongoing collaboration with AGFA and Something Weird Video, which distributes several Milligan titles. In their catalog, you’ll find them written up and praised by Henenlotter, perhaps the world’s second-most famous Milligan fan. Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive; The Neon Demon), in a 2012 piece for the Guardian, wrote of how he spent $25,000 on Milligan prints and ephemera. He even helped one title, Nightbirds, recirculate on home video. “The more you get into them,” Refn writes, “the more you realise that they were made by someone who was very tormented, and very intelligent; a sensitive man who used film as an artform to express his views on life.”
Born in 1929 to a retired—and allegedly all-too-passive—military officer and an abusive, alcoholic mother (once, she burned her son’s hand with an electric stove) in St. Paul, Minnesota, Milligan went from the Navy to New York, where he fell into dressmaking and playwriting. He eventually up shop with several companies at, among other spots, the famed Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street, a hotbed of gay and alternative performances featuring the likes of Warhol Superstars and a young Al Pacino. His first noted film was the thirty-minute Vapors (1965), shot at the Saint Marks Baths, about a chance encounter between two gay men. Intimate and personal, and very talky, Vapors contains the claustrophobia and ripped-from-life characters that would follow Milligan through the years. It bounced from the arty Filmmakers Cinematheque on West 41st Street to the sexploitation circuit, where it was billed as “the Year’s Most Controversial Underground Film.” Two contemporary Andys, Milligan and Warhol, were concurrently transgressing with gay underground stories of hustlers and drag queens, but unlike Warhol, many of Milligan’s titles would never be recovered.
Celluloid’s limited lifespan being what it is, Milligan was an unfortunate casualty of distributor neglect and contempt. Lewis Mishkin, son of Milligan’s distributor William Mishkin, discarded the negatives of many a Milligan sexploitation title. Henenlotter takes it hard, feeling that genre to be Milligan’s best suit: “They don’t waste their time.” He feels it is this absence of a catalog that makes Milligan a more obscure name than Herschell Gordon Lewis (The Wizard of Gore) and Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space). Almost all the films Henenlotter saw around the age of eighteen he has never been able to find in his many years of film rescue. All that survive are press kits and eye-catching posters.
As sexploitation gave way to harder stuff in the late 60s, Milligan was pressured into horror. Torture Dungeon is the earliest horror title that remains (Henenlotter claims a kiss between a hunchback and royal figure was cut from the negative), and the last he filmed before jumping from his home studio in Staten Island to England, where Bloodthirsty Butchers was filmed soon after. Milligan himself didn’t even like the film; the title, ready for a filthy marquee, corresponds more with the verbal ugliness at play within this ambitious and cheap penny dreadful, based upon the tales of Sweeney Todd. That it is Victorian in inspiration speaks to the high-pitched melodrama that Milligan clearly favors over the violence, more comparable to Golden Age Hollywood than to its grindhouse contemporaries. There’s a drag performance which provides one of the film’s warmer touches. The outfits, designed by Milligan, don’t impress, but the sheer gall of producing an exploitation film just to disguise a budget costume drama sets the filmmaker apart from peers who don’t bother to attempt anything sustainable between the tits and the gore.
Despite working within the same biz, Henenlotter only met Milligan once, after seeing one of his plays. Beverly Bonner, who co-starred in Basket Case, was the link between the two directors. Henenlotter only had time to say hello and tell him how much he enjoyed his films, much to Milligan’s delight. Again, Milligan’s play was endlessly talky, but not as nasty; “it’s better when there’s anger,” Henenlotter claims. Even in Basket Case, one can see Milligan’s influence, in the anger and suspicion that leads to the film’s bloody end. So too in Refn’s Neon Demon, in which the entire fashion industry is coded with hateful vulgarity, fitted between violent acts.
Though there’s nothing specifically memorable about Bloodthirsty Butchers, except perhaps the aesthetic itself, Milligan’s films are hardly forgettable, given the tortured passion behind them. Down and out in Los Angeles, Milligan died of AIDS in 1991, after being consigned to the bottom of the direct-to-video pile. The suffering never seemed to stop in Milligan’s life, and though it persists in his abrasive filmography, there are respites of joy scattered throughout. The audience does not share Milligan’s burden when watching his films—we only see him push ahead.