Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! (1972): or Hell is Other People. And Werewolves.

In the 3+ years since starting this blog, The Duke and I have discovered many Mad Movie Makers whose enthusiasm for their genres is a constant inspiration to us. These are directors and writers whose films betray an irrepressible, infectious joy for the process, no matter how limited the budget or poorly executed the ideas. Of course our patron saint Paul Naschy is the archetypal example, his love of monsters and excitement at being able to realize his dreams on screen bleeding into every frame. Mad Genius Jess Franco is another whose enthusiasm cannot be questioned, and even the Brazilian Demon Lord Jose Mojica Marins's nightmare visions are often tinged with a mischievous sense of humor and twisted joy that we find extremely affecting. The list goes on, from filmmakers with dozens of directorial credits to one-off dream-makers who made their shot at Mad Movie immortality count.

And then there's Andy Milligan. Just as compulsively devoted to making movies, just as inspired by tales of monsters and mayhem, just as determined to overcome shortcomings of money or talent as any of the above-mentioned luminaries, Milligan's oeuvre is something else entirely. For Naschy and Franco and others, nearly every film, no matter how "bad," seems a genuine expression of a deep kind of love. For Milligan, every movie seems a scream of pain and rage, an open, suppurating psychological wound. With the Joymongers above, you want to sit down and talk movies with them over a glass of fine port. With Milligan, you just want him to get help. NOW.

Perhaps Milligan's most eye-catchingly titled film, The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! (1972) is no exception. Though lighter on the papier mache gore effects and overt sadism of Guru the Mad Monk (1970) or the monster-on-monster action of Blood (1974)--reviewed here and here on MMMMMovies respectively--TRaC!TWaH! is still packed to the gills with all the venom and hysterical hate of both those movies, and then some. Is that a recommendation? Maybe.

It's Hobo-Stomping Day!
We start things off with a bang: after a few establishing shots of a nicely gothic-looking mansion, Milligan sweeps his camera dizzyingly over a formal garden that at first seems to be ON FIRE, until you realize it's just an overactive fog machine hidden behind one of the hedges. We discover two young toughs roughing up a grunting, shrieking tatterdemalion, raining blows over his head and shoulders that he's powerless to stop. As one of the ruffians holds the hapless hobo down, the other pours lamp-oil on his back and sets him ablaze! At this point the residents of the mansion pour out to the victim's rescue, and his attackers scatter as the heroes put out the flames.

Turns out the victim is Malcolm Mooney (Berwick Kaler), the mentally handicapped youngest son of the aristocratic Mooney clan. His rescuers are brother Mortimer (Noel Collins), eldest sister Phoebe (Joan Ogden), and youngest sister Monica (Blood's Hope Stansbury).Far from being concerned about their brother's burns, however, the Mooney siblings immediately start hurling hateful recriminations at each other for having let Malcolm get out of his cell. Monica even spanks her wounded brother as Mortimer hauls him inside, which doesn't seem very sisterly to me.

"I'll show you all! I WILL win the World Bitch Championships this year!"



It doesn't take long for the audience to realize that the Mooneys are as dysfunctional as grass is green. When Phoebe wonders aloud why Monica hates Malcolm so much, Mortimer spits back, "Monica hates everything and everybody! She's just ONE BIG HATE." When Phoebe tattles to bedridden Pa Mooney (Douglas Phair) about her sister's behavior, she gets another dose of venom. "I'm tired of Monica getting blamed for everything. She's my baby, and she'll always be my baby! If you don't like it, then GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!" Pa has a frail ticker, though, and drops into a seizure, whereupon Phoebe injects him with something--a fresh supply of bile is my guess--to keep him going a few more days.

To his credit (?), Milligan packs an awful lot of familial dysfunction into the first five minutes of his flick. All the characters seem absolutely frantic to get out as much hatred and venom as humanly possible in the limited amount of time they're allowed. It's like an episode of the Jerry Springer show that plays 24/7 in the Mooney household. Sartre famously said, "Hell is Other People," and I have to believe that Milligan agrees 100%--though he might add "--and yourself" to that formulation.

The Disembodied Head of the Amazing Madame Mombo is overcome with passion at the sight of  Manly Mortimer's nipples.

Things don't get any better when youngest daughter Diana (Jackie Skarvellis) comes home,  having been away in Scotland at medical school for the past four years. With her she brings hapless new hubby Gerald (Ian Innes), who can have no earthly idea what he's let himself in for in marrying a Mooney. Pa is dead-set against the marriage, hinting cryptically that they "can't take the chance" until he finishes his "experiments"--experiments Diana was educated in order to assist him with. Monica makes it her business to let her new brother-in-law know the score right away, however. "Hello, I'm Monica, the middle sister. The BITCH! The one they always talk about behind her back!" Well, it's not bragging if it's true. Gerald's first dinner with the family further establishes the unwise nature of his choice of bride, as it ends in fisticuffs and Monica shouting, "You go to HELL! ALL OF YOU!" No surprise that Gerald wants to get (the fuck) out of there after one night, and this before he learns the Mooney's real dark secret.

So the way it shakes out is this: the Mooney's are a family of werewolves, which might be a spoiler if it wasn't, you know, in the TITLE of the movie. Their affliction is passed on through the blood, which is why Pa doesn't want any of the kids to marry. Malcolm is the most bestial of the clan--for reasons that become off-puttingly clear later--and Diana is the most nearly normal, since her mother, Pa's second wife, was "untainted" by the curse. However, the second Mrs. Mooney was mysteriously poisoned shortly after Diana's birth, a fact that concerns Pa less than you would think.

"Mousey, this is going to hurt me more than it does you...haha, just kidding. This is gonna SUCK for you."

Milligan gets quite a bit of mileage out of questions of familial taint (ooer). Diana explains Malcolm's malady with a shrug: "The genes get mixed up at conception and he never developed into a normal baby!" As it happens Gerald also has a strange family history--his father was executed for raping a six-year-old girl, and Gerald himself was raised by nuns who habitually stripped him naked and whipped him in front of all the other orphans. Though Milligan's ADD-directorial style never allows this to gel into a really cohesive subtext, the pervasiveness of the characters' scarred pasts and their effects on the present are definitely an interesting aspect to the story.

Presumably due to his bestial retardation, Malcolm is locked in a cell-cum-chicken-coop, surrounded by nervous birds that are occasionally thrown across the frame by off-camera crewmen. To control his other children's monthly episodes, Pa sedates them and himself on nights of the full moon, though this doesn't stop the kids from congregating in the courtyard and tearing more chickens apart to sate their unnatural bloodlust. This is actually a rather eerie scene, perhaps because it's the first time in the movie the family gets together without screaming invectives at one another, instead silently cooperating on their little blood ritual. The fact that "voice" of the doomed chicken in its death throes is clearly done by a human impresario--perhaps Milligan himself?--is both hilarious and strangely disquieting.

Pumpkin Orange Gown + Tan-in-a-Can == FABULOUS!
I mentioned that Milligan seems to have a certain attention-deficient quality as a director, and this carries through into the script, which he also wrote. The movie is peppered with odd, seemingly non sequitur episodes, such as Monica's repeated torturing of mice and other small animals (apparently done for real, sadly). Later she goes into town to buy more "pets" from a disfigured, Orc-like shopkeeper, who sells her a bunch of vicious rats that he's raised on human flesh! (This was a bad idea for many reasons, not least because, as he tells his customer, one night as he was passed out drunk the rats escaped their cage and ate HIS ENTIRE ARM and half his face before he awoke!) These are the rats of the title, one assumes, and I was thinking they'd be important later...but strangely, after one of them bites her Monica returns them to the shop, and upon failing to get her money back sics the man-eating rats on the shopkeeper, who sets himself and the shop on fire in his panic. And that's pretty much the end of the rat episode.

We get more of Monica's psychopathy later, when an urchin friend of hers (who appears out of NOWHERE) tries to blackmail her with knowledge of the Mooney curse, and ends up getting hacked to death in a gazebo. This is the only real gore scene of the flick (minus the mouse execution), with Monica cleaving mannequin-hands off stuffed sleeves while Milligan indulges his patented "swirling camera" chaos technique. Not as juicy as the scenes in Guru the Mad Monk, but at least it's something.

Handy Chopper

After Gerald accidentally touches his mom's silver cross to Monica's back (after she leaps out of his armoire brandishing a knife!), the resultant puff of smoke and screaming exit clues him in to what's really afoot. Pa Mooney tells him the whole story, though strangely his "experiments" seem to have nothing to do with fixing the whole werewolf thing, but rather with prolonging human life towards immortality. (?) Fed up with her sibling's hysteria, Diana has the cross melted down into bullets and buys a gun for them (in another strange extended scene with a lonely silversmith, played by Andy Milligan himself in a fright wig and Fuller Brush-moustache), and gets ready for the Big Climactic Showdown.

Things have been dragging a little in the latter half of the movie, but the final confrontation with the Mooneys brings it back around, as each family member seems compelled to confess some past sin before wolfing out and attacking. (Spoiler: Phoebe's has something to do with the death of Diana's mom and the reason for Malcolm's condition.) Milligan's swirling camera is in full effect again, and it's hard to see whether the werewolf makeup is any good, but I'm guessing not. With her family exterminated, Diana has one more surprise in store for Gerald, who must end up thinking those days being whipped naked by sadistic nuns look pretty good in retrospect.

Blink and you'll miss him

I mention Milligan in the same breath as people like Naschy and Marins and Franco, but let's be clear about one thing--as a filmmaker, Andy hasn't a smidgen of the talent of any of those guys. His movies are bad--badly written, badly edited (Andy did the splicing himself as well, with the same ADD quality as his writing and directing), badly photographed, and mostly badly acted. (I would single out Hope Stansbury's performance as a rare exception--her bitchy psychopathic portrayal of Monica is a bright spot here, and I always enjoyed watching her spew venom at her hapless costars.) So with all these caveats, why does Andy Milligan fascinate me so?

Maybe it's because his films feel like expressions of a diseased mind, cries from a wounded, desperate soul. Not for help, perhaps--in Milligan's movies human beings seem genuinely beyond all help--but for expression, to be heard over the howling din of the madding crowd. Milligan seemed to have an OCD for filmmaking--he made over 25 movies, all of them on shoestring or nonexistent budgets, and most of which he wrote, edited, photograped, and even made the costumes for (he was an accomplished gown-maker) himself! In the realm of Mad Movie directors, Milligan is far from the most accomplished, but he definitely makes a run for the top spot of MOST MAD.

The Duke dictates his autobiography to a nude dwarf amanuensis with a 12-inch schwanschtucker.

Not many casual viewers are going to like The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! If you're looking for a werewolf extravaganza, this isn't it--there's really only one scene of werewolf action, and that comes eighty minutes into this 90-minute flick. Lycanthrope fans might find something interesting in the idea of the werewolf family's interaction, and how they're cursed not only by their werwolfism, but by their dependence on one another--but it's a bit of a stretch.

Still, I found this movie fascinating--maybe in the way highway accidents and public arguments between enraged relatives are fascinating. Somehow all that bile and venom and hate got under my skin and made it hard for me to look away. And I think there's something to be said for a movie that can get to you like that, however badly made it is on a technical level. So would I recommend TRaC!TWaH! to the unintiated? Probably not. But rating it on my own reaction, I'm giving it 2 thumbs. If you're looking for something different and possibly unique, give Milligan's movies a shot. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Andy Hates Us All

Nota Bene: Whether you're a Milligan movie fan or not, I can HIGHLY recommend Jimmy McDonough's excellent biography of the man, The Ghastly One: the Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan. A fascinating portrait of an extremely damaged man, with lots of great stories about the movies and the people behind them, not to mention Andy's connection to Warhol, Cafe Cino and the beginnings of Off-Broadway theater. Even if you never plan to see an Andy Milligan film, it's a GREAT read.

4 comments:

Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, I read with fascination the serialization of The Ghastly One in Video Watchdog but I haven't yet managed to see one of Milligan's films. I'm sure they have to be appreciated on an auteurist level, i.e. you have to be convinced that each film is a meaningful episode in the director's life or life-work, if not meaningful as art or narrative. I'd expect most of the entertainment value in these films to come from the acting, good or bad, but I agree with you that Milligan did have a sort of bilious worldview that marks each film as his own. I think I have one in one of my Mill Creek sets, and October may be the time to give up my Milligan virginity, if that's a concept you can absorb without becoming physically ill.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Samuel,

I think the Milligan film on the Mill Creek set is CARNAGE, which is *not* where I would recommend starting--it came rather late in his career, and much of whatever fire he'd had as a young man was sadly waning. I started with BLOOD (reviewed on this site), which was as bad as advertised but nonetheless captivated me.

You're right about the necessity of the "auteurist" pov when approaching Milligan's films--those just looking for a "good movie" are not going to enjoy him at all--the chumps! ;)

I'm interested to see Milligan's early short film "Vapors," which was discussed in THE GHASTLY ONE as perhaps Andy's one honestly good film, and an ahead-of-its-time take on homosexuality. There are layers here, definitely.

prof. grewbeard said...

i've been wanting to see this film ever since i heard the title, THE exploitation title! however, i haven't, only the amazing trailer for it. i have seen The Ghastly Ones, so i can imagine the bitchery that goes on in TRAC! TWAH!(SQUA TRONT?). The Body Beneath also seems like a likely target. i have to admit though, The Ghastly Ones was rough-going...

dfordoom said...

This is the one and only Andy Milligan film I've seen. It was certainly an experience. Although not an experience I'm likely to repeat! But I guess you have to see one of his movies - this one really defies description.

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