Drive-in horror films provided a thriving business for independent filmmakers in the 1960s. While Herschell Gordon Lewis pioneered the gore film on the beaches of Florida, and Larry Buchanan remade cheap AIP features even cheaper down in Texas, and Al Adamson and Ted V. Mikels made the West coast unsafe for audiences, a true eccentric named Andy Milligan was making his own distinct brand of horror movies.
Milligan’s films are marked by their relatively dialogue-heavy scripts, creative camera placement, frequent period settings (and the anachronistic appearance of such things as radios in same), and quirky characters. But two of the foremost preoccupations of Milligan’s films were a sympathetic portrayal of misfit characters, and a decidedly unsympathetic view of nuns and priests. Both these themes are present in The Body Beneath (aka Vampire’s Thirst), one of a pair of features Milligan made for the short-lived British firm Cinemania Films that had success distributing his previous picture The Ghastly Ones.
Milligan started out as an “underground” filmmaker, but found a cash paying audience for his kinky sex flicks in the downtown grindhouses. When the “roughie” — gritty black & white sleaze pictures featuring as much perverse violence, lust and bad attitude as local censor boards would allow — took over as the mainstay of adult theaters, Milligan was already ahead of the game. By the end of the decade, pictures like Night of the Living Dead led to a more permissive climate within the mainstream horror genre, so Milligan took his kinky bag of tricks into that arena.
Pious preacher Reverend Algernon Ford has rented Carfax Abbey in Hampstead Heath, and is busily organizing a family reunion of the Ford clan. Actor Gavin Reed, as Rev. Ford, looks a bit like Kevin Spacey. He can be seen a decade later as the soap director in Tootsie.
Graham Ford (Colin Gordon) and his wife Anna (Susan Clark) have recently arrived from Canada. Fashion model Candace (Emma Jones) and her spirited niece Susan (Jackie Skarvellis) also receive invitations. Susan is happy to hear that there’s a clergyman in the family, as she’s making plans to wed her artist fiance Paul Donati (Richmond Ross).
But it seems Graham, with his mixed blood, turns out to be unsuitable for the Reverend’s hidden purpose. The hunchback Spool (Berwick Kaler) and a trio of green-faced ghoul-ettes are dispatched to dispose of the unworthy relative.
Reverend Ford and his wife Alicia (Susan Heard) are actually vampires, taking their daily dose of blood intravenously and using some sort of injections to withstand the daylight. Susan goes visiting and falls into their trap, before long learning their insidious, incestuous plan. She is to bear children from sires at their command, as part of an effort to revive the “weakened” Ford bloodline.
Paul goes looking for Susan at the Abbey, and suspects something’s up when the Reverend casts no reflection in his cigarette case mirror. A rescue attempt fails, and Paul is captured, too. Before long, Emma becomes a prisoner as well. The captives’ efforts to gain the assistance of poor Spool are discovered, and the hunchback is tortured and burned.
The time for the big vampire conference finally arrives. Shot through a greased lens, and accompanied by multiple layered music tracks, it looks like a ghastly Mardi Gras home video. Various historical figures can be glimpsed in the crowd at this dance macabre, including Julius Caesar and Queen Elizabeth I.
Cinemania folded before releasing the film, so Milligan ended up releasing it himself on a double bill with his Guru, the Mad Monk — a program that no doubt had few bookings at church basement movie nights.
Image has done another fine job with this digital remaster, with even stains and blotches on Something Weird’s rare, complete print looking clear. They’ve given The Body Beneath one of the most stylish menus yet in the Something Weird series — probably too classy for the film itself.
Perhaps this horror DVD isn’t the most appropriate place to include Vapors, Milligan’s early ’60s gay themed featurette — but then, the folks at Something Weird Video have no way of knowing if they’ll get a chance to release the other Andy Milligan titles in their catalogue on DVD, so they may have thought it best to provide as much Milligan material as they could. And for some viewers, Vapors may constitute a terror of another sort.
The grainy, 45 minute black & white featurette stars Robert Dahdah and Gerald Jacuzzo and is considered the first openly gay commercially released film ever. Made in 1963, the plot concerns an encounter in a New York City bathhouse by two first time visitors. With better actors, some think Milligan could’ve become another Cassavetes, if he hadn’t gotten into horror flicks instead.
The disc features Milligan’s trailers for The Body Beneath, plus Vapors, The Ghastly Ones, Guru, the Mad Monk and his extreme roughie Seeds of Sin. But the disc’s nicest surprise may be Something Weird’s all-new Gallery of Exploitation Art — posters, lobby cards, and ad mats from ’60s drive-in shockers accompanied by insane sex-horror movie radio commercials (rather than the usual music clips).
Occasionally, the low budgets of these productions result in poor quality audio tracks, a problem that becomes quite annoying at times, especially for viewers with hearing problems. I urge the folks at Image, and all DVD producers, to go the extra mile and provide subtitles on their discs whenever possible.