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The Ghastly One documentssometimes
in excruciating detail and other times in a manner so telescoped as to lose the reader
entirelythe career of exploitation filmmaker Andy Milligan. Milligan is
a forgotten figure in film, a man who directed 29 movies between 1965 and 1988. The reason
for Milligans lack of status is fairly simplehis movies were garbage. He
worked in the Times Square exploitation film industry, and he made movies with titles like
Gutter Trash, Torture Dungeon, Bloodthirsty Butchers and Fleshpot On 42nd Street, shot for no money and with
little regard for any conventional measure of quality. As McDonough writes,
Milligans films were unique by any standards...first and foremost there were
the punishing budgets. Most of his sexploitation films hovered around the poverty
level$10,000 total cost. Then there was the 16mm Auricon camera, totally
inappropriate for features. Its optical sound sync delay forced Milligan to stage
everything in long, rehearsed sections, and even then the sound quality was marginal...To
save money on raw stock, Milligan used short endssnippets of garbage left over from
big film rolls used on mainstream shootswhich would frequently run out in the middle
of a take. Theres more (and more, and more) about Milligans pitiful
working methods in The Ghastly One, along with
horror stories of directorial abusiveness on-set; a gay misogynist, he apparently took a
vibrant pleasure in torturing his actresses, both on camera and off. These are movies that
dont bear memorialization, unless the reader is a video-store clerk looking to
out-hip his fellows.
Fortunately, theres a larger narrative here. Even McDonough seems eventually to realize, after repeated attempts to glorify the inchoate rants Milligan committed to film, that his subject is unworthy of an entire book, so he expands his scope to discuss the rise and fall of the Times Square grind-house theater circuit. Having spent years hanging around the old theaters, watching cheap horror movies and kung-fu imports along with the sexploitation films that teased audiences in the years before hardcore pornography was widely accepted, McDonough tells all he knows about the men (and one woman) who owned the theaters, and competed viciously for every dollar on the street. The story of the theater owners, who demanded a constant stream of cheap product and screwed the creators at every opportunity, is far more fascinating than that of the hacks who filled the projectors with, in McDonoughs words, strange, crummy picturesbad gases emitted from the fevered minds of males poised on the scary ledge of sixties sexual freedom. A better book than The Ghastly One would have focused its attention on producers like Radley Metzger (who also worked as hardcore porn director Henry Paris) or Stanley Bordens American Film Distribution, or William Mishkin. Mishkins ability to earn huge grosses from meager product was legendary, even though everybody knew Bills pictures were awful. The ability to make an awful movie is no talent at all. Making money from awful movies is a subject worthy of investigation.
The Ghastly One is a moderately entertaining book only when it realizes this, and steps back far enough from its titular subject to perceive the greater reality at work. Andy Milligan was a factotum, a small cog in a vast machine. The machine is interesting; he is not. No amount of hipster posturing could make his movies anything more than amateurish dreck, and to insist that they are worthy of detailed analysis only reveals the atrophy of critical skills which is the inevitable result of too much time spent seeking cheap giggles from garbage.