Sep 25, 2012

The Body Beneath

After completing his typically wretched work Torture Dungeon (1969), low-camp auteur Andy Milligan (Vapors, Guru, the Mad Monk) would make a deal with British producer Leslie Elliot and move across the pond to England. During his exile in England, Milligan directed two of his “greatest” and most original films: Nightbirds (1969) and The Body Beneath (1970). Once presumed-lost, but now found thanks to dandy Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Drive), Nightbirds is arguably Milligan’s most mature and artistically-merited yet strikingly stark and maliciously misogynistic work that – not unlike his debut featurette Vapors (1965) – takes a more audacious and uncompromising look at the frailty of the human condition, especially among sexual degenerates; a subject the debauched director knew all too well. Being a sadomasochistic sodomite with a terribly torrid and troubled personal life, Milligan ultimately opted for directing escapist exploitation flicks and bloody bad period pieces, but with The Body Beneath, the technically-incompetent visionary created a more serious and – dare I say – more classy film in the Grand Guignol-esque cinematically fantastic style he is infamous for. “Filmed in the graveyards of England” in “bone-chilling color” and featuring "sexually rampant ghouls, depraved souls...and blood-red roses," The Body Beneath is a modern vampire flick with traditional folklore elements about an ancient family of inbred bloodsuckers that is looking for some new, mortal inter-family blood, so as to rejuvenate their current degenerating state. Led by a charismatic yet physically unremarkable “Reverend” who likes to quote Oscar Wilde (although forgetting his name due to his advanced undead age) and protected by a fearsome threesome of green-faced barbarian Barbarella-like lady vamps, the frightfully fabulous Ford family takes residence in the Carfax Abbey; a Gothic monastery with an ancient graveyard that is haunted by the bloodsucking ghoul gals. Reasonably paced and surprisingly coherent in structure for an Andy Milligan monster movie, The Body Beneath is a welcome relief from the emotionally and aesthetically sterile Hammer horror films that were flooding the British film market at that time.

Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed) is quite the charming bloodsucker in a religious sheepherder’s clothing, as he has a wonderful way with words as displayed early on in The Body Beneath when he declares in the most grand pomposity that, “I know everything dear boy!” and “it isn’t easy being right all the time” and, indeed, it would seem that he does, especially when it comes to his family’s extensive genealogical records. Looking to recruit some fresh mortal for the immortal vampiric Ford family that goes back no less than 21 centuries, the good Reverend aggressively recruits long-distance mortal relatives against their will and is especially interested in female Fords as he will use them – not unlike the National Socialist Schutzstaffel Lebensborn breeding program – to sire a rejuvenated generation of immaculate god-men that the Rev fervidly describes as “godlike in appearance.” To help him with the less glamorous work associated with kidnapping, torture, and murder, the Reverend uses a slavish, shy, and seemingly half-retarded hunchback named Spool (played by Berwick Kaler of Milligan’s Nightbirds). Spool may be a ridiculously repulsive monster-man that does dastardly and dirty deeds for vampires, but that does not stop him from being hopeless romantic that eventually falls prey to the temptations of a beauty mortal girl that the Reverend has held captive. Featuring less than erotic gratuitous sex scenes, violent yet exceedingly schlockish death scenes, and mind-numbingly maladroit melodrama, The Body Beneath is a film of unintentionally delightful distinction. Undoubtedly, the greatest part of the film is when the entire Ford family congregates into a giant crypt and engages in a Dionysian orgiastic feast of blood and debate as to whether they should move to America. Bearing a suitably campy resemblance to the faggy and fairy varmints of Jack Smith’s revolutionary and sexually-ambiguous featurette Flaming Creatures (1963), except filmed in a quasi-psychedelic and notably atmospheric color that further accentuates Milligan’s costume design talents, The Body Beneath – although inferior to the auteur’s other British trash masterpiece Nightbirds – concludes in a sinisterly climatic fashion.

Sneeringly attacking his nation of origin, Milligan decided to present the land of the free as a virtual hellhole inhabited by the “scum of the earth”; full of socially and physically defective pimps, prostitutes, vagrants, and medieval religious fanatics, but I guess that is what one would expect from the miserable, misanthropic auteur who gave us Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1972). In the rather risible realm of The Body Beneath, ghastly bloodsucking ghouls are the most valiant of heroes and all things pure and untainted are determinedly defiled. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised is if the persnickety Reverend Ford was an alter-ego of Andy Milligan and the rest of the vamps being symbolic of his off-Broadway performers. As Milligan fanatic Nicolas Winding Refn once stated regarding the schlockmeister filmmaker’s horror works: “They have these strange scenes of violence, poorly done but so charming and campy, and all conveyed with such sincerity.” Indeed, one of the main appeals of Milligan’s marginal cinematic works, especially Vapors, Nightbirds, and The Body Beneath, is that – unlike the similarly incompetently directed gore flicks of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red) – they have a distinct and blatant wholehearted essence behind their direction, hence the gutter-auteur’s posthumous popularity in the underground. With The Body Beneath, Milligan was indubitably at his most preeminent, which might not mean much in context with his mostly wholly worthless filmography, but as contemporary alpha-auteur Nicolas Winding Refn sentimentally declared regarding the ghastly filmmaker: "Few filmmakers can boast of having a recognisable style, but when you see a Milligan movie, you are in no doubt whose film it is."

-Ty E


jervaise brooke hamster said...

I`ve always been quite keen on these kinds of movies, its just such a shame that this one was made by a faggot in England, that`ll always stop me from watching it unfortunately.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

"Spool is a slavish, shy, seemingly half-retarded hunchback, and a ludicrously repulsive monster-girl, but also a hopeless ro-girl-tic". That sounds just like a perfect description of me and my obsession with Heather ! ! !.