Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Return To Milligan's Island, Part 4

The bluish denizens of Highgate Cemetery from THE BODY BENEATH.

Continuing my coverage of Severin Films' new and much coveted box set, THE DUNGEON OF ANDY MILLIGAN COLLECTION...

To some considerable extent, the second disc in the MILLIGAN set reproduces and upgrades the BFI's Flipside label release of NIGHTBIRDS on Blu-ray and DVD back in May 2012. As with that earlier edition, Milligan's British vampire opus THE BODY BENEATH (1970, 82m 11s) is included here as co-feature, along with an interview (with its elliptic presentation, it's not really the audio commentary promised) with Berwick Kaler, a cast member of both productions, moderated by Stephen Thrower, along with trailers for both pictures. Still of interest in regard to the earlier release, I hope, is the illustrated booklet containing writings by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough, Stephen Thrower and me, Tim Lucas. 

Reverend Ford (Gavin Reed) crucifies the hunchbacked Spool (Berwick Kaler).

NIGHTBIRDS and THE BODY BENEATH were the first two of an eventual five pictures that Andy Milligan made during a residence in London, where - according to Stephen Thrower's research - he lived and worked from September 1968 to August 1969. Unlike the majority of these pictures, which were for William Mishkin, the first two were produced by Leonard Elliott, a Briton whose company Cinemedia Films, Inc. is credited onscreen as impersonal producer.

I've already written in depth about the bulk of Milligan's work in a three-part series for VIDEO WATCHDOG (see #s 52-54), I am here paying attention mainly to the DUNGEON set's new discoveries and upgrades; therefore, other than to note that it was shot in several of the same rooms as THE CURSE OF THE FULL MOON and compares well to some other British horrors of the same period (I'm looking at you, CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR), I'm going to pass over any deeper discussion of THE BODY BENEATH. It has always been one of Milligan's most available titles, most notably as a Something Weird Video DVD distributed through Image Entertainment, but Severin's 2K restoration is a complete and seamlessly organic full-aperture presentation that finally renders obsolete all previous Frankensteinian assemblages of different elements and different gauges. New to the Severin release is an audio commentary by William Fowler and Vic Pratt, authors of the book THE BODIES BENEATH (Strange Attractor Press), which I look forward to enjoying at a less hectic time.

Julie Shaw and Berwick Kaler of NIGHTBIRDS, Milligan's bid for arthouse cred.

However, I've not previously written about NIGHTBIRDS (1970, 77m 49s), which is neither a horror film nor terribly much like Milligan's bitchfest cult and sexploitation titles; it's also one of his relatively few titles that take place in a contemporary setting and his last movie in black-and-white. If anything, it's a throwback to his early short VAPORS (1965, included elsewhere in this set), which was a more or less straightforward dramatic piece documenting the interactions of the gay clientele at a New York public baths house. Though shot on short ends and running on the short side of feature length, NIGHTBIRDS finds Milligan stretching himself, aspiring to higher achievement, but to no discernible end except perhaps to earn a even passing consideration as this kind of filmmaker. 

A meandering yet intermittently sweet and sour boy-meets-girl story, NIGHTBIRDS is of greatest interest as a time capsule of Swinging London's seldom-explored decline and as a dramatic workshop for its two leads and a couple of older female characters met along the way. It begins with a young, somewhat haunted-looking man named Dink (Berwick Kaler) stumbling around the streets, vomiting and generally acting like he's been poisoned. He is approached by Dee (Julie Shaw), a too-good-to-be-true young woman who essentially comes to his rescue. When Dink admits he has no place to go, sleep, or stay, Dee takes him back to her apartment (where we learn she, too, is barely surviving and paying her rent with sexual favors) and nurses him back to surprisingly quick health with a cup of tea. Both characters are fundamentally uptight, for reasons to do with their past and background, but they soon enough let their defenses down and embark on trust and intimacy with one another. Gradually, the viewer begins to see through their respective masks, the more dissolute man revealed as a virginal innocent while the outgoing, resourceful woman is revealed as the more mentally unbalanced. 

See what I mean?

Ultimately, NIGHTBIRDS 
manages only a weak tea level of the anger or delirium roiling in Milligan's most personal work; it embodies a vague idea of what other people might want to see and appreciate as art rather than a place of genuine feeling and disclosure. It presents itself as filmed dramatic theater as filtered through the 1960s trends of gestalt and encounter group therapy and is primarily of interest for presenting the male lead Kaler - a sometimes feral, unnerving presence in Milligan's subsequent British horror pictures - in a more troubled, vulnerable, sensitive mode. Both Kaler and Julie Shaw, making their first onscreen appearances, manage to make something somewhat more of their thinly-sketched roles. In an accompanying interview (not really a "commentary") with Kaler, moderated by a very patient Stephen Thrower, the actor admits to being mystified by his and Shaw's visible ease and comfort in relation to the camera and can only credit this to Milligan's handling of them. In relation to this, he also reveals that (at least from the point of view of his own involvement) Milligan spent more time on NIGHTBIRDS than on the horror movies he also made during this London period - as much as a couple of weeks, including rehearsal time. 

Though it's easy to accept that Milligan spent more time on this ambitious project than his others in pre-production, the script nevertheless feels hastily dashed-off before he caught his transatlantic flight; it's a rough draft rushed before the camera rather than a fully realized text. To take just one point of illustration, Milligan wastes an entire minute of screen time with Dee offering Dink a cup of tea, which he at first turns down and begins to explain why, but finally, gratefully accepts. Ultimately neither fish nor fowl, NIGHTBIRDS cannot really be called one of Milligan's better films - just one of his more normal (read: less abnormal) ones. It's what people politely call "a character study," in that neither its story nor pay-off are particularly profound yet something about the actors and the ill-defined tension of the situation keeps us watching, hoping something will happen to galvanize all the loose ends. It would be preposterous flattery to file it among the more notable outlier views of the weird side of London, such as Roman Polanski's REPULSION (1965) or Jerzy Skolimowski's DEEP END (1970). If it has any message at all, it's the same one we get in much more entertaining Milligan pictures: that other people are no damn good and those who survive, survive alone.

Knowing what we've heard of Milligan's production methods, it's tempting to suspect that NIGHTBIRDS was made with meager money diverted from his budget for THE BODY BENEATH, which is definitely Poverty Row but positively rich-looking compared to this. However, Stephen Thrower's VENOM booklet includes testimony from producer Leonard Elliott confirming his knowledge of the picture under its original title (PIGEONS) and his plans to release a whole spate of Milligan pictures had the first two done well. As it is, aside from a rumored three-day booking at New York City's Cameo Theater in 1970, there is no evidence that the film was ever properly released anywhere in the world until the BFI home video release in May 2012.

The Kaler interview also reveals, in a disclosure reminding us of the mouse torture episode in the subsequent THE RATS ARE COMING! THE WEREWOLVES ARE HERE!, that Julie Shaw and Andy Milligan had a temporary falling out when she refused her director's order to twist the head off a live pigeon that serves as the couple's vaguely metaphorical family pet through most of the proceedings. Andy eventually did the dirty deed himself, with Shaw then made to gingerly carry its headless carcass to a resting place on the ledge of her apartment's rooftop. This would seem to challenge what Hal Borske said in defense of Milligan in his VIDEO WATCHDOG interview, when he claimed that Andy was a lover of animals and that the mouse episode only happened because William Mishkin's office insisted.

(c) 2021 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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