Andy Milligan: The Ed Wood Of 42nd Street

Remembering the "born angry" grindhouse director.

By Alyse Wax · @alysewax · May 11, 2021, 5:22 PM EDT
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Andy Milligan (credited as Charles Richards) in LEGACY OF BLOOD (1978).

Sex, murder, mayhem and monsters. All common – even expected – visions in the grindhouses of New York’s legendary 42nd Street. But while directors like H.G. Lewis, Russ Meyer and Frank Henenlotter have all achieved a modicum of success (or at least notoriety) since the Disney-fication of 42nd Street in the early 1990s, there is one director who was never quite able to escape the Deuce: Andy Milligan.

I like to call Andy Milligan “The Ed Wood of 42nd Street.” He churned out cheap slashers and sexploitation flicks by the dozens – twenty-nine in twenty years. Milligan was writer, director, cinematographer, editor, set decorator and costume designer for his films. Sometimes he even processed the film negatives. While he often estimated the budgets of his films at upwards of $20,000 in order to get more money out of producers and investors, his budgets were often half that. Especially with his early films, Milligan rarely spent more than $1,000 on each production – and it shows. But unlike Wood, Milligan’s films were not campy and silly; they were angry, misogynistic films that dealt with dysfunctional families, incest, homosexuality and brutality. Andy always said he was “born angry,” but his family sure didn’t help matters.

Andy Milligan was born an Army brat in 1929. His father, Andrew Senior, was a mild-mannered officer; his mother, Marie, was an overbearing, abusive alcoholic. Andy had an older half-brother (his mother’s son from a previous marriage) who grew up to be a pedophile, and a younger full-sister with whom he was very close until Andy was about ten or eleven years old.

As a form of “rebellion,” Andy joined the Navy – which he loved. Upon discharge, he moved to San Francisco and went to theater school until his mother told him she was having a nervous breakdown and he needed to come home and take care of her. He did, and found out she was lying. Andy swore he wouldn’t see her again until the day she died – and he didn’t. At the funeral, Andy interrupted the priest’s generic, feel-good eulogy to shout, “She was a bitch!” After that he hitchhiked to New York and made it his home. Milligan floated around the New York underground for many years. He got involved in puppetry, fell into acting, and designed clothing under the name Raffine. Then he found Caffe Cino.

Often credited as the home of the off-off-Broadway movement, Caffe Cino opened in 1958 and originally began as a coffee shop and art space for founder Joseph Cino and his friends. It was one of the few openly gay establishments in New York that wasn’t a bathhouse or a bar. The theater scene at Caffe Cino sprung up organically, and the tiny space and close-knit group of regulars kept things intimate and weird. Andy arrived around 1960 and shocked the unflappable regulars with the brutal violence in his plays. One of his plays, The Two Executioners, brought police around regularly with the main actor’s soul-wrenching screams. In another, The Glittering Gates, the beatings that the young star took were not staged combat; every punch landed and he was a constant map of bruises. Andy left Caffe Cino when the Warhol crew moved in and drugs started to take over (Andy was straight-edge when it came to drink and drugs). He flitted around a few other tiny theater companies, but none really suited him. He had started experimenting with an Auricon, a 16mm newsreel camera, and his life as a filmmaker began.

Andy’s first film, 1965’s twenty minute short entitled “Vapors,” was also one of his best. Set in New York’s infamous St. Mark’s bathhouse, an ostensibly straight man comes in to take a “break” from his sloppy, bossy wife by spending time with a male escort he picks up at the baths. No sex takes place between the two men, and the hustler is genuinely heartbroken when his john leaves after a half-hour and doesn’t return. Maybe it is because of its “real life” setting, but Milligan’s misogyny is overwhelming in this first picture. The john, Mr. Jaffee, spends much of his time complaining about his wife: how vain she is (because she “won’t wear the proper size shoes,” leaving her feet warped and disgusting for her foot-fetish husband); how uncaring she is (because she leaves him re-heated meals while she goes out); how they haven’t had sex in nineteen years (because she puts curlers in her hair and cold cream on her face before bed); and how she is a slob (because she leaves used maxi pads on the bathroom sink).

Andy shot at least a half-dozen films in 1967, all of which are lost. These films include sexploitation The Promiscuous Sex, period-piece The Naked Witch, the futuristic Depraved!, and swingers-gone-violent in The Degenerates. Over a dozen Milligan films, mostly from the late 1960s and early 1970s, are “lost” or incomplete; in reality, it is likely the negatives were simply destroyed. No one thought much of archiving cheap films like these. Like many of his contemporaries, most of Andy’s early films were sexploitation flicks. He moved into horror when hardcore pornography was legalized. Andy had no interest in shooting porn, something clear from the dispassionate way he filmed his softcore scenes.

The Ghastly Ones from 1968 is one of Milligan’s earliest surviving films, and is one of his “best know.” It was also his first “gore” picture. Three sisters and their husbands must spend three nights in an old Victorian home in “sexual harmony” in order to earn their inheritance. Like in “Vapors,” the wife is to “blame” for disharmony, as mother and father “never knew married love.” The women turn against one another and use sex to control their husbands as they are killed off one by one. The killer is not the idiot hunchback, as one might assume, but a servant named Hattie, a half-sister from father’s first marriage, who was forced into servitude by her evil stepmother.

Later that same year came Seeds (aka Seeds of Sin, aka Seeds of Evil) which feels terribly autobiographical. Carol arranges a family reunion – despite the fact that everyone in the family hates one another – just so she can resume her love affair with her brother Michael. It is revealed that another brother, Matthew (whom Carol also tries to seduce), now a priest with a jealous nympho girlfriend, molested youngest brother Buster, who blames his homosexuality (and ensuing expulsion from military academy) on Matthew’s abuse. Family members start dying, and the alcoholic, wheelchair-bound matriarch outs Carol as the murderer – just before Carol kills her. Michael strangles his sister/lover to death, then reverts to a childlike state, singing lullabies over her corpse.

Incest is a shockingly common theme in Andy Milligan’s films. In “Vapors,” the would-be john speaks a little too wistfully of his deceased son and his beautiful skin; in The Ghastly Ones, one character goes to his wealthy brother for a loan, in a scene whose only importance seems to be to hint at an inappropriate relationship in their past; and, as you can see, Seeds is entirely about incest – in fact, Andy almost titled it Incest. It is likely this mimics Andy’s own unhappy childhood. Andy’s half-brother, a convicted pedophile, swears that he never touched Andy. Andy’s younger step-sister (who never met Marie and did not grow up with Andy) suspects that Marie molested Andy; another anonymous family member claims that Andy molested her as a child.

During the shooting of Seeds, Andy made his most shocking move yet: he got married. To a woman. Despite being an avowed homosexual who usually picked up his dates in dive leather bars and the seediest stretches of the Deuce, he decided that it would be good for “business” if he had a wife. In all honesty, it sounds like he got married out of pure boredom. His betrothed was Candy Hammond, who played Carol in Seeds, and the wedding took place on set, at the end of one of the shoot days. He then spent that night trolling gay bars and bathhouses – without Candy. Unsurprisingly, the marriage lasted less than a year, and was never consummated.

Andy even offended the sleaziest pornographers. One of his lost films, Gutter Trash, about the seedy world of a nude model, was an affront to sex for notorious porno rag Screw. Dan Mouer wrote a full page attacking the film in the June 15, 1970 issue. “Everybody pays for every ounce of pleasure with hours of beatings, whippings, rapes, etc… I would take my kid to an orgy before I’d let him get his ideas about sex from movies like this.”

Andy left New York around 1968 and headed to England, where he shot Nightbirds (a dark relationship study); The Body Beneath (vampire brides recruiting to strengthen their numbers); The Man With Two Heads (Milligan’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde); Bloodthirsty Butchers (Milligan’s version of Sweeney Todd); and The Rats Are Coming! The Wolves Are Here! (more family melodrama, this time with a family of werewolves). Fun fact: The Rats Are Coming! is the only film of Milligan's to get a PG rating. In other words, it is boring.

Women in Milligan's films are domineering, manipulative and frequently alcoholics and/or killers. They always get their comeuppance, usually in the form of being murdered by one of the “abused” men. One of the most blatant examples of this comes in Bloodthirsty Butchers. A fairly straightforward retelling of Sweeney Todd, Milligan’s Sweeney is driven into the arms of mistresses by his crazy, alcoholic wife, Becky. Of course, when his mistress gives him an ultimatum (“You get nothing more from me until you dump your wife”) Sweeney kills her. Another character in the film tries to use an unexpected pregnancy to trap her boyfriend into marriage. This ends with her murder as well.

The England experiment only lasted two years. Upon his return to New York, Andy bought his first 35mm camera and shot Guru, The Mad Monk, an overt attack on organized religion. The advanced technology slowed things down and left a bad taste in Milligan’s mouth, so he returned to off-off-Broadway theater. 1972 brought what many saw as the quintessential Andy Milligan film, Fleshpot on 42nd Street, a chronicle of the Deuce as experienced by prostitutes, drag queens, and hustlers. The film work was drying up, and he only completed two more films throughout the rest of the 1970s: Blood (1973) and Legacy of Blood (1978). Carnage, shot in 1983, was Andy’s last film in New York. He moved out to Los Angeles around 1985. With home video on the rise, Milligan was once again able to find work churning out his gory dreck. But he was also nearing sixty years old, and was likely already infected with the AIDS virus that would eventually kill him. He made three films in California, including The Weirdo and Monstrosity, which was his New Wave Punk ode to Frankenstein.

Andy Milligan’s last film, 1988’s Surgikill, plays like a feature-length blooper reel. As you can guess from the title, doctors slaughter patients – but in a comical way. Surgikill saw a very brief run on VHS and is extremely hard to find. I have only been able to find a few clips online, and frankly, it’s pretty bad – even for Milligan. The acting goes way past “so bad it’s good” and straight to “so bad it’s bad” and the staging is stilted. It’s a shame that this sterilized flick was to be his last. Andy was dying a slow, painful AIDS-related death. Back then, AIDS was a death sentence, and it claimed Andy Milligan on June 3rd, 1991. He died penniless, and as most of his friends were equally skint or dead, Andy was buried in an unmarked mass grave by the City of Los Angeles.

I wish that there was some legacy that Andy Milligan left behind, some “life lesson” or a body of work that would forever change the landscape of cinema, but there isn’t. Milligan seemed to embody the anger, decrepitude, and filth of the Deuce.

Recently, Severin Films released a nine-disc Blu-ray set containing every surviving Milligan film, including found fragments and trailers from otherwise lost films. The set also includes a 123-page booklet about the life of Andy Milligan, an extensive filmography, and details about the transfers. For even more info on Milligan, Jimmy McDonough’s biography The Ghastly One is indispensable.