Thursday 5 July 2012

An Andy Milligan Double-bill from the BFI,
Part # 2:

The Body Beneath (1969)

Compelling in an entirely different fashion is the film Andy Milligan made immediately after ‘Nightbirds’, his first UK made horror effort ‘The Body Beneath’. “Filmed in the Graveyards of England!” announced the posters when the film eventually saw release in New York a few years later, and as selling points go, that’s certainly one that works for me. And indeed, a few memorable sorties into Highgate Cemetery do turn up here, adding further atmosphere to a film Milligan primarily shot in and around the Serum Chase estate on Hampstead Heath – a frequent British film location, perhaps most strikingly utilised in Joseph Losey’s ‘Secret Ceremony’.

Although there is absolutely no evidence to support such a notion, it’s fun to speculate that perhaps the sight of Milligan’s bizarrely-attired cast traipsing through Highgate on their no doubt un-permitted excursions might have been witnessed by would-be vampire-hunter Alan Farrant, who claimed he had seen black masses and similar shenanigans taking place in the cemetery in the lead-up to the infamous ‘Highgate Vampire’ flap of 1970. Apparently I’m not the first to have made this (no doubt entirely spurious) connection, and it was nice to see the wonderful ITN News feature on the ‘Highgate Vampire’ (previously exhumed at BFI/Flipside’s Mysterious Britain night in 2010) getting another airing alongside ‘The Body Beneath’ at a Flipside screening in January this year.

Although I’d been fascinated by Milligan and the world he inhabited ever since I read Jimmy McDonough’s book, I’ll admit that up until this point I’d been pretty reluctant to actually watch any of his films. For all that I might sympathise with his underdog status and marvel at the sordid circumstance under which his films were made, I do actually prefer to enjoy the movies I watch wherever possible, and sitting down with a few flicks made by a guy best known for his sadism, misogyny and near unwatchable technical ineptitude doesn’t exactly sound like my idea of a fun Friday night, y’know? At the same time though, there’s often a lot be said for simply taking a deep breath and diving in where good taste fears to tread, and when I saw the announcement of the BFI screening, I knew it was time to take the plunge.

Even without firsthand knowledge of his films, I implicitly understand that Andy Milligan is part of MY cinematic world, and that if Flipside want to go out on a limb and get stuff like his proudly listed in the programme of the National Film Theatre, it’s my duty to turn up and support them in that endeavour. I mean, I’ll bet this was the first time any of the films Milligan made in the UK have actually even been screened in public in the UK! In a weird sorta way, it’s quite a landmark event in his gradual rehabilitation as a recognised filmmaker, and hey, even if the movie itself turned out to be unbearable, just observing the kind of people who show up for it is sure to provide a certain amount of interest.

Well as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. I shouldn’t have brushed off Andy for so long, and I should have trusted the Flipside folks. ‘The Body Beneath’ is… well, it’s just beautiful really. I find it hard to put into words the extent to which the very existence of a film like this warms my heart. Maybe viewers who do not share my particular tastes will think otherwise, but to see such a wonderful, cracked vision of the world, preserved for all these years in faded, damaged, blown-up-to-35mm form, projected flickering and fuzzed up onto the screen for a dedicated few who still cherish and appreciate it, was genuinely moving. An odd claim to make perhaps, given the scorn and cynicism that usually greets discussion of Milligan’s work, but I hope that some of you who read this blog will get what I mean.

Although I’d never seen the film before (never seen any Milligan film in its entirety in fact), I felt instantly at home in the strange world of ‘The Body Beneath’. It was as if some much-loved friends and family members had made a backyard camcorder horror movie, say, ten years ago, and we were all sitting together watching it and chuckling, whilst at the same time marveling at how surprisingly good in actually is, and at how impressive the costumes Uncle Bert made were, and so forth.

There was indeed much chuckling in NFT1 on Andy Milligan night, and rightly so – ‘The Body Beneath’ is hilarious, in that impossible-to-fake way that can only arise from a genuine, unself-conscious descent into the absurd. As long-term readers will hopefully be aware, I am very much opposed to the idea of laughing AT films like this (what kind of heartless swine could do that?). But, like ‘Glen or Glenda’, or ‘Troll 2’, or ‘The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant’, there is a unique kind of linear-yet-impossible logic on display here that simply cannot be rationalised. We do not laugh in order to mock or dismiss, we laugh simply through astonishment, through a mixture of joy and disbelief in what we are seeing; we laugh because there is now other possible response. Again, it’s a difficult feeling to explain, but I hope readers will get where I’m coming from.

Pivotal in holding ‘The Body Beneath’ together is an unforgettable performance from Gavin Reed, in the role of the Reverend Algernon Ford, the smug and officious vampire overlord who presides over assorted diabolical goings on in London’s ‘Carfax Abbey’. The kind of inherently comical looking British actor one could easily imagine trudging through a whole career of bit-parts as camp waiters and toadying butlers (indeed, his only other film credits are walk-ons in ‘Carry On Loving’ and the Dustin Hoffman vehicle ‘Tootsie’), Reed takes to the opportunity to play a lead role (if admittedly a very strange one) with rare gusto, instantly earning Reverend Ford a place in my pantheon of favourite oddball horror movie characters. (It would be nice to think that he’s out there somewhere, running free with Luther The Beserk, Simon: King of the Witches, The Crimson Executioner and the rest of the gang.)

It’s just as well Reed goes at it with such enthusiasm too, because a lesser actor in the role could have torpedoed this whole movie, at least 50% of which seems to consist of Reverend Ford going on, and on, and on about his bloodline, his family history and his nefarious plans. (There’s a great moment where he exclaims “forgive me, I talk too much, it’s a bad habit!” and sits down in silent ‘brooding posture’, leaving the other actors in the scene staring at him in baffled silence until someone nudges him and he gets up to continue his incessant monologue.)

Somewhat unfeasibly, the Reverend claims that ‘the Ford clan’ have been buried in Highgate for over two thousand years, their unbroken lineage dating back far enough to incorporate an unspecified Roman Caesar. This will come as something of a surprise to the historians who claim the first burials in the area took place after the cemetery was first consecrated in 1839, but no matter.

As far as the outside world is concerned, Reverend Ford and his mute, knitting needle wielding wife Alicia have only recently relocated to London from County Cork, but in fact the ‘Ford clan’ are nothing less than a dynasty of vampires, who for centuries have lurked in the tombs beneath the (relatively recently established) cemetery, feeding off the unwary. As their elected leader (they’re a democratic bunch, it seems), the Reverend has decided to go ‘overground’ in an effort to strengthen the family’s bloodline by gathering together assorted distant Ford relatives and imprisoning them in some sort of unholy breeding programme.

(We could probably spend quite some time speculating on quite how a vampire ‘lineage’ functions, and by what circumstances they ended up with an apparent network of healthy, non-vampiric human relatives, but…. let’s just not, ok?)

To help him in this task, Reverend Ford has command over a trio of silent ‘vampire brides’, whom he dispatches to kidnap his unfortunate victims. A visual masterstroke, these ‘brides’ are incredibly striking, appearing out of nowhere as fairie-like apparitions, their bright blonde hair, green skin, scarlet lipstick and primary-coloured diaphanous gowns (no doubt knocked up by Milligan’s costumier alter-ego ‘Raffine’) all blazing from the screen in hyper-real fashion, making full use of the remarkable faux-technicolor palette Milligan manages to wring from his cheap 16mm camera.

I particularly liked the way that whilst two of the ‘brides’ are conventionally attractive gothic maiden types, the third looks like a right bruiser. And when the trio’s shocking appearance and eerie, occult movements don’t succeed in subduing their prey, it’s no surprise that she’s the one ready with plan B – a good ol’ fashioned bottle of chloroform.

Another interesting addition to the Reverend’s household is his faithful hunchback servant Spool (Berwick Kaler, in a rather crushing demotion from the male lead status he enjoyed in Milligan’s previous film). Always the daftest and most questionable of horror movie archetypes, the wretched, drooling hunchback seems to have held a particular fascination for Milligan, who features them in almost all of his horror films, often taking the time to provide them with detailed back-stories and personal motivations – a direct expression of the kind of cracked compassion that can be detected beneath the grubby surface of his films. Here for instance, poor old Spool is allowed a lengthy monologue about the traumas that led him to his sorry station in life (naturally it’s all the fault of his evil step-mother and step-brother, who pushed him in front of a bus at a young age, then beat him and had him thrown out of his family and committed to a home).

Adopting a woollen cap over greasy blonde locks for this challenging role, with some pillows stuff under a torn anorak by way of a hump, Kaler capers about in the strange hopping fashion Milligan seems to have demanded of his hunchbacks, emoting like crazy as Spool finds himself torn between his loyalty to Reverend and his desire to help the female prisoners, who are ever-so-friendly to him as they try to enlist his help in escaping. Of course, we know either path leads to nothing but betrayal and disappointment for Spool, and, having established him as by far the film’s most sympathetic character, it is with a kind of mad glee that Milligan unfolds his terrible fate - crucified by Rev Ford and set alight by ghouls after his duplicity is discovered. Poor Spool!

Although far more ambitious than ‘Nightbirds’ in terms of cast, locations, narrative, production design etc., Milligan’s actual direction on ‘Body Beneath’ is notably rougher, with a lot of awkward, cropped framing, chopped off heads, excess ceiling room and the like in the close-ups, whilst dull, stagey long shots predominate elsewhere. Andy still enjoys his woozy dutch angles and swirling transitions when the mood takes him though, and I actually found a lot of charm in the movie’s sundry examples of technical ineptitude.

For instance, you’ve probably watched scenes in other films in which tied up victims use broken glass to cut their bonds and free themselves, but I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything quite as awkward and drawn out as the one here, in which our notional hero Paul (Richmond Ross) crawls around the floor of a locked room for a good two or three minutes, pushing over a conveniently placed glass vase with his nose, pulling a coat off a shelf with his teeth and wrapping it around the vase so that he doesn’t cut himself when he proceeds to break it with his feet, and so on. Milligan’s insistence on actually showing us this entire operation in real-time, where other directors would simply have used a few quick cuts to give us the general idea, demonstrates an amateurish bloody-mindedness that is actually strangely endearing. (Of course, knowing Milligan, it could just have been a welcome opportunity to linger for a few minutes on the sight of an attractive young actor in a kind of weird bondage situation, but a viewer unaware of the director’s proclivities would be unlikely to make such a connection.)

As usual, Milligan’s dialogue is extraordinarily overwritten. He seems to like commas even more than I do, and it’s easy to imagine actors’ hearts sinking as they were confronted with a script that seems to drag out even the simplest bits of exposition to excruciating length:

“You have brought me here against my will, and in less you release me shortly, my maid, who has no doubt by this point discovered my absence, will notify the police… now do I make myself clear?”

“But without any trace of a clue, how could the London police find such a charming young lady as yourself, in all of London.. and of course its suburbs?”

Milligan’s use of music here is also characteristically unhinged, his technique seemingly consisting of dropping the needle at random on archaic-sounding library records that sound like they’ve been ripped straight from some 1920s melodrama, using the soupy racket that results not so much to accompany the on-screen action as to drown out the camera whir, background noise and muttering that dominate the film’s recorded-straight-to-camera audio track.

In other respects though (the ones that really matter, arguably), ‘The Body Beneath’ is a surprisingly impressive piece of work. Visually, it’s an absolute feast of weirdo gothic imagery, looking unexpectedly splendid in the BFI’s remastered version - still grainy as you’d expect from a 16 mil blow-up, but blessed with deep focus and incredibly vivid primary colours. (Who knows, maybe Milligan’s other films might lose some of their reputation for ugliness if similarly scrubbed up?) With sodden, misty graveyards, extraordinary costumes, garish make up and languid, Rollin-esque walks, the film’s exterior scenes are actually incredibly atmospheric, with the fuzzed out graininess and random, warped music cues only increasingly their dream-like, haunted resonance.

In particular, the closing scene, in which the already pretty vampiric looking Jackie Skarvellis awakes from death and embraces her newly undead fiancée against the backdrop of a chill, blue dawn, is genuinely pretty beautiful – a superb low budget horror moment by anyone’s estimation.

‘The Body Beneath’ reaches its true zenith of visual / conceptual lunacy before this however, as we visit the annual ‘conference’ of the Highgate ghouls, where the Reverend Ford proposes a controversial plan to relocate the ‘family’ to America.

Following the vampiric host through a blue-tinted, day-for-night march across the graveyard, we join them in the family crypt, distinguished from the film’s other interiors through the use of jaw-dropping fogged fish-eye lens effects and swirling, Anger-like psychedelic madness, as the garishly-clad underworld creatures feast lasciviously upon fruit, hunks of meat and… flowers?

With visuals distantly reminiscent of both Anger’s ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’ and Jack Smith’s ‘Flaming Creatures’ (either of which Milligan may conceivably have encountered via his connections with the New York avant/gay arts scene?), the sense of dementia in this sequence is only heightened when Reverend Ford begins his address, debating with the green skinned, feather-clad Elizabeth Ford (Judith Heard, presumably sister of Milligan regular Susan, in her only screen role) as to the pros and cons whether or not this gang of millennia old British ghouls should relocate to sunny California.

Elizabeth: “I know our bloodline is deteriorating… I know we’re having problems with the police*.. I know we’re on the verge of discovery by the entire world… I realise we must pro-create a stronger breed of Ford… I agree that for us to continue to survive and exist we must make some sort of move. But to go to America?! Never! What is America? What is it made of? Pimps, prostitutes and religious fanatics, thrown out of England but a few small centuries ago! They’re the scum of the earth!”

Rev Ford: “I don’t want to leave my native soil… I don’t want to leave these grounds which are second nature for me… these familiar surroundings, these glorious environs which Alicia and I have enjoyed for so many centuries […] Look around you… all this may come to an end if we do not move to this new continent. Our relatives living in Canada and the United States are fabulously healthy specimens… we cannot exist another hundred years unless we bring them into our family… we must vote in my favour out of necessity […] we know only too well how close we have come to being discovered by the police for what we are… you all know how difficult it is to move around London after 11:30pm! London is a police state after midnight! Anyone can be stopped and asked where they are going at any time of the morning! We can no longer exist under these limitations! So, I have decided that we must move to America […] I have arranged for a chartered boat to take us to the States, it leaves at exactly 2am. […] There shall be some room on-board for personal belongings, it will be a long journey. We shall go round North America through the canal and land at California… we shall entomb ourselves at Forest Lawns, which is very lovely, I have heard…”

And so it goes on. Readers should note that I have excerpted the above quotation from a full speech that it easily twice as long. Surely, no other director in history would have thought to give us this bizarre debate in full.

And so, in conclusion: regardless of Andy Milligan’s dubious reputation and myriad eccentricities, I find it hard to believe that anyone with a love of outsider cinema and gothic horror could fail to utterly charmed by ‘The Body Beneath’.

More visually adventurous and thematically upbeat than yr average Milligan effort (in spite of its knitting needle eye-gouging and flaming hunchbacks),** the film’s mixture of Rollin-esque gothic surrealism, utter goofball craziness and otherly inspired filmmaking technique in fact makes it hard for me to conceive how I could possibly love it more. Maybe a little less yakking and fewer awkwardly framed interior shots might have helped, but let’s not split hairs: to all intents and purposes, this is a real classic of the kind of thing we like to celebrate on this weblog, and, needless to say, I’d urge you to seek out BFI/Flipside’s superb release with all possible haste, in the hope that more of this sort of thing may follow.

Criterion double bill of ‘Torture Dungeon’ and ‘The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!’ anyone..? After this disc, anything’s possible.

*I love the notion that a brood of outlandishly clad vampire ghouls who’ve been living in a public cemetery for two thousand years should suddenly be having “problems with the police”.

** I’ve subjected myself to quite a few Milligan movies in the past few months, just FYI re: my ability to draw such comparisons having earlier claimed never to have seen any of his movies before January this year…


Soukesian said...

Great review of this unexpected double-bill, and the Body Beneath screen grabs look particularly fabulous. Seeing a feature on this release in the Guardian Film section a month or so back was a real moment of cognitive dissonance!

I knew Andy Milligan's name and a little about his films from reading Psychotronic and the like back in the VHS era, but most of what I'd read was off-putting, so I didn't bother investigating further when DVD made US releases more accessible. I will rectify that omission with this set as soon as possible.

Ben said...

Glad you enjoyed the review! I've managed to watch four more Andy Milligan films since seeing 'Nightbirds' and 'The Body Beneath', and so far it seems like the BFI have definitely picked his most entertaining and rewarding work for their release.

There's a kind of eccentric charm to his other horror films that keeps me going, but aside from that they definitely justify their reputation for being pretty much unwatchable, so... tread carefully. I certainly wouldn't want anyone spending money on 'Guru, the Mad Monk' just on my account. : D