Monday, June 30, 2008

Guru, the Mad Monk (1970): or, Sunday School's for Suckers

It's a MAD MAD Mad Mad Movie Week--Day Two, Review #98

At the Lost Souls Church of Mortavia, times is hard. Mother Church has apparently forgotten her little outpost on the seldom-visited island, leaving head clergyman Guru to scrounge for cash however he can in order to keep fighting the good fight and doing the Lord's work. He is able to bring in a little extra money by using the church dungeons to imprison ne'er-do-wells and degenerates shipped over from the mainland, and gets a bonus for attending to the well-being of their souls whilst also personally attending to their corporeal punishments. But those candles ain't cheap, nor is the upkeep of Guru's mistress/amateur apothecary Olga (who has Special Dietary Needs). With his adopted one-eyed hunchback ward Igor in tow, Guru must find a new way to make ends meet.

Luckily inspiration strikes when the lovely young Nadja is dragged kicking and screaming into the dungeon by two black-hooded executioners who seem to moonlight as Mortavia's beat-walking police force. Accused of murdering her newborn child and trying to dispose of the body, she is sentenced to die at Guru's hands. As Fate would have it, Nadja's old lover Carl has taken a day job as jailer in the church dungeon. Nadja professes her innocence, claiming to have been kidnapped by a gypsy king and forced to bear his child, only to escape just before her water broke. The baby was stillborn, she says, and she was just trying to give the tyke a decent burial when she was apprehended. Though an ordinary person might well invite Nadja to "pull the other, the one with bells on," Carl trusts her implicitly and rushes off to talk to Guru about her plight.

Guru listens to Carl's pleas pleasantly, but informs him that the girl has been condemned by the church and cannot be saved. Therefore he should just trust in God. When Carl opines "I can't believe there is a God, when things like this occur!" he is repaid for his blasphemy by a vicious pope-slap! Still, Guru concocts a possible escape--he'll get Olga to mix up the old Capulet Headache Home Remedy that will cause Nadja to appear dead so that Carl may resuscitate her at his leisure. The price? Carl must agree to transport the bodies of executed criminals to the university in a town many leagues distant in order to sell them to medical students and fill the church's coffers with gold! The Cash-for-Corpses scheme doesn't sit too well with Carl, but seeing little choice, he agrees.

Carl becomes Jesus's bitch.

But Olga has a price of her own before she'll part with the powder. Dressed in resplendent 70s thrift-store fabric and a truly ostentatious headdress, the conniving chemist makes Carl promise to leave the bodies of executed criminals lying on the chopping block for half an hour before packing them up for delivery, so that she can extract their blood for some "experiments" she's conducting. Stuck again, Carl acquiesces, proving the truth of the old maxim "Once you say yes to springing your gypsy-befouled baby-killing girlfriend from prison, you can't very well say no to anything else."

Next we get to see the holy money machine in action, as Guru blesses and then executes a procession of the condemned from the church's dungeon. A "peeper" has his eyes put out, a thief has her hands hacked off, and of course Nadja is set up to be terminally truncated for the grand finale. But true to his word Guru slips her the potion in the last rites wine, and she collapses before the axe can fall. Guru and Carl tote Nadja away, while Olga crawls toward the blood-soaked butcher block on all fours, snarling! You know, for SCIENCE.

Carl is of course delighted to have Nadja free and clear, but unfortunately he hasn't figured on Guru's duplicity. Dropping all pretense of compassion and kindness, the old monk lords his power over the lad like a spider taunting a fly who has fallen into his web. "I preach one thing and continue believing another!" Guru declares evilly, and drives Carl away on his body-shopping errand. Meanwhile Nadja must stay in the bell tower for leverage, where she is taken care of by the child-simple hunchback Igor.

"But Olga, I'm not sure I can fill that whole thing in one go!"

At this point Guru goes completely off the rails. In a powerhouse scene that would not be equaled until Willem Defoe recreated it in Spider-Man, Neil Flanagan as Guru argues with himself in a full-length mirror, alternating between the kind man of God and the evil, self-serving sadist with dizzying speed. While Guru murders a few vagrants freelance when they come to the church seeking help (including one near-orgasmic stabbing of a sailor--ooer), Nadja befriends Igor and gains the deformed lad's affection. And if that weren't enough, a buxom babe comes into the sanctuary only to be hypnotized and drained by Olga, who reveals herself as "The Soul of Darkness"--a vampire queen! Whoa, Nelly!

It all comes to a head when Mother Church alerts Guru to her intention to replace him with a new, less-maniacal monk. Guru overreacts to the news just a tiny bit, slaughtering the two mainland clergymen before dumping Olga and proposing to run off with Nadja, who has made his little bishop genuflect IYKWIMAITYD. We get a revealed severed head, an appallingly unconvincing self-stab, and poor Igor nailed to a door like the 95 theses before a henchman rebellion brings an end to the whole sad, sordid tale.

This is my second trip into the wild world of eccentric lunatic filmmaker Andy Milligan, and it certainly hasn't dampened the flames of my interest. Shot four years before Blood and purportedly the only Milligan feature done in 35mm rather than 16 or less with blow-ups, it certainly LOOKS a lot better than both that feature and The Ghastly Ones--which is perhaps the definition of damning with faint praise, but still.

Mom told you so.

The acting again is fairly good if graded on a curve against what one typically sees in productions of this sort. Neil Flanagan as Guru is the best of the mediocre lot, which is good since the success of the flick rests on his shoulders. He plays the smarmy conniving holy man with convincing evil glee, and his one-man duel against his mirror image is actually very well acted. Jack Spencer as Igor contributes a technically dubious but at times strangely affecting performance, particularly in his manic, lovelorn exchanges with Nadja. Judith Israel as Nadja does all right, while Jacqueline Webb stinks up the joint as Olga and Paul Lieber as Carl invests every line with an "aw shucks" naivety, his soothing quiet voice appealing though unsuited to the role. (Lieber apparently went on to have a very busy career in television acting--his imdb credits continue to the present day, a rarity for a Milligan cast member.) Julia Willis makes an impression as Christine, largely on the strength of her pretty face (and prodigious boobages). The direction recalls a stagy 1940s melodrama, and overall the acting standard is on par with an upper-end high school play--which again in this instance is actually rather a compliment.

Speaking of direction, Andy Milligan displays a remarkable (for him) feeling of control over the production here, which in Milligan's case is perhaps not altogether a good thing. While it's easier to follow and less headache-inducing, it also lacks some of the manic, wild energy that Blood displayed, the feeling that the whole thing was a damaged helicopter spinning madly out of control until the inevitable crash. That said, the hate is still in evidence, if somewhat subdued, particularly in late exchanges between Guru and the Bishop who's come to relieve him of his post. The makeup and effects are very low-rent but more fun because of it--severed hands a la mannequin, pierced eyes made of marshmallows, and silly-putty hunchback disfigurements just being a few examples.

He's got the whole world on his head.

So in the end, Guru is both better and worse than the other Milligan films I've seen, but nonetheless interesting. Like Blood, this one clocks in at less than 1 hour, so the time-investment isn't daunting; even if you don't like it, you've only missed one episode of Law and Order: Super Rapist Destroying Division, so no harm, no foul. 2 thumbs for this little slice of Milligan madness.

Note: the version I got from Netflix included a 12-minute Milligan documentary, which was actually just an interview with a crew member who worked with Andy on his last couple of flicks. The fellow's insights on Milligan, whom he describes as like "a frantic bunny" on the set who didn't trust anyone else to do anything and thus did pretty much everything himself, are fascinating and I wanted to hear more. When asked whether Milligan in fact had any filmmaking talent, he demurs with the line, "The only talent Andy ever really had was the ability to get things done." For some reason, this didn't sound like a bad thing to me--to press forward and chase the dream, even when lacking funds, support, or basic aptitude? What's more of a Glorious Failure than that?

Living La Vida Vicar


Tenebrous Kate said...

Whoa--this sounds way better AND nastier than the two latest clerics-gone-mad movies I watched. Loving those costumes, too. Although I think My People could whip up something WAY better than that for your robes of state. Just Sayin'. ;)

Karswell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karswell said...

Still in Milligan Mode eh? It's funny you mention severed mannequin hands cuz that reminds me I never sent you Carnage... which features the severed mannequin head in it's finest role.

Sorry about the deleted comment too. Fahhhht.

Anonymous said...

One of the OOP Something Weird DVDs of a Milligan film (I forget which one) includes his short film Vapors as an extra.

It's actually a very good underground art film, shot on location in an NYC gay bathhouse. It's definitely worth seeing if you've an interest in Andy Milligan. Actually, all the ingredients of his later grindhouse films are there -- anger, self-loathing, camp, raw sleaze -- but played straight (no pun intended).

Still, it's fun to play "what if," and imagine that Milligan had stayed in art films. Is there an alternate universe where Milligan is mentioned alongside Kenneth Anger or John Cassavetes?

Anonymous said...


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