The Ghastly One documents—sometimes in excruciating detail and other times in a manner so telescoped as to lose the reader entirely—the “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 Milligan’s lack of status is fairly simple—his 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, “Milligan’s 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 ends—snippets of garbage left over from big film rolls used on mainstream shoots—which would frequently run out in the middle of a take.” There’s more (and more, and more) about Milligan’s 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 don’t bear memorialization, unless the reader is a video-store clerk looking to out-hip his fellows.
Fortunately, there’s 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 McDonough’s words, “strange, crummy pictures—bad 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 Borden’s American Film Distribution, or William Mishkin. Mishkin’s “ability to earn huge grosses from meager product was legendary,” even though “everybody knew Bill’s 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.