31 Spooky Movies in October: 2012 Edition, Part 2 – Andy Miligan Special Report

by kdlough

9.  The Body Beneath (Andy Milligan, 1970)

First of all, take a moment to watch that trailer.  Incredible, isn’t it?  I’m dedicating today’s post to an extended rumination on the infamous Andy Milligan’s The Body Beneath.  If you were cynical, you could say this is my apology for giving it such a high score.

I’d guess that most cinephiles of a certain persuasion are already familiar with the Milligan legend and have (or should have) read Jimmy McDonough’s great biography, The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, so I won’t reiterate his story here.  Milligan sits in a special place in film circles today, to the extent that Publisher’s Weekly can claim that The Naked Witch is one of his “greatest films,” despite the fact that no known copies of The Naked Witch exist, it’s unlikely that any will ever be found, and the very few people who have seen the movie saw it over 50 years ago.

I won’t attempt to summarize The Body Beneath‘s plot in great detail, because it wouldn’t make any damn sense.  But basically, a family of British vampires (who also have non-vampire relatives?) kidnap some people as part of a scheme to further their bloodline.  At the end they give up and go to America instead.

While Milligan always revisits familiar plot points (memories of past abuse, sympathetic outsiders, unhappy endings) and storytelling methods (characters spout off an endless stream of exposition that would put Christopher Nolan to shame), his movies are dominated by his visual style.  If you’re not a fan, the best way to describe this style is “piss poor.”  The lighting is genuinely terrible and Milligan’s trademark way to shoot an action scene consists of dropping the camera.  For dramatic dialogue scenes, the camera is positioned somewhere beneath the actors’ chins.  And the compositions are uniformly cramped, to hide the limited sets that were re-used throughout the entire movie.

A representative shot from The Body Beneath. Note how ridiculously close the actors are standing to one another.

If you’re like me, however, there are some ways in which Milligan’s mise en scéne is kind of exciting, or at least weird in a watchable way.  It’s an oddball combination of 1930s Hollywood classicism and 1960s underground that’s clearly self-conscious and intentional; appreciate it or not, this is the way he wanted the films to look.

The Body Beneath is a difficult movie to review fairly.  By the standards of most movies, it’s poorly shot with a plot that’s dull and nearly nonsensical.  But Milligan’s world is not the world of “most movies.”  And by his own standards, Body Beneath is a fast-paced, extravagantly photographed genre thrill-ride.  Unfortunately, this puts the movie in an odd position for me: it doesn’t feel as personal and unique as The Ghastly Ones or Torture Dungeon, but it’s not good enough to work on its own as a horror movie.

I guess you could watch it to laugh at it, but I’m not sure if you’d get more than a few chuckles.  Sure, it’s kinda funny how little Andy tries to hide the fact that he’s using the same house for nearly every location, but it’s not really Ha Ha funny, you know?  And gorehounds will be disappointed as well, since most of the runtime is taken up by that endless exposition I mentioned before.

The best way to watch The Body Beneath is to approach it on its own terms and dare to take it seriously.  It’s a lot easier to like than many Milligan films, with plenty of crazy hand-made costumes and oddball amateur acting, and the Kenneth Anger-lite vampire feast is pretty fun.  Sure, at the end of the day it’s still kind of crummy, but I’ve got another Milligan movie ahead on the schedule that’s said to be way worse than this, so…

SCORE: 7 crucified hunchbacks out of 10