The Ghastly Ones (1968)

Another gap in this collection has begun to be explored. Andy Milligan has for this reviewer been a familiar yet unviewed name amongst many expoitation directors. Well-known for his bloody and sexual period pieces, shot with shoestring budgets on Staten Island, the wonders of DVD are making a few titles available here and there. After a view of The Ghastly Ones I'd like to see more, as there is a particular cynical viciousness seeping through the threadbare production that is quite compelling. Rough and ready as it is, you do get a sense that a film was made with very little holds barred. Where Herschell Gordon Lewis generally stages violence in an almost caricatured, static way, Milligan's violence is relentless and poisonous, attackers creep up on their victims and stun them with a weapon, then mercilessly hack them to bits on-screen as the camera lurches all over the place. It's all a bit disconcerting!

Our first scene sets the pace vividly. An eighteen-hundreds couple - Andy was a milliner so could design and make reasonably good period costumes - alight their boat on a small island and explore a huge property and house. Suddenly a demented-looking man attacks the young fellow, bursting out of the woods and pulling his (clearly a boiled egg) eye out. He then attacks him with a meat-cleaver. The young woman is the next to go, first her hand is cut off, then her skirt is pulled up and her abdomen and legs are attacked with heinous savagery. Finally the lunatic hacks her leg clean off. Roll the swirling, psychedelic credits.

We're now introduced to three married couples. The vivacious Vicky (Ann Linden) and Richard (Fib LaBlaque), Veronica (Eileen Hayes) and Bill (Don Williams), plus Elizabeth (Carol Vogel) and Donald (Richard Ramos). They have all received a letter asking them to meet with their late father's lawyer, Dobbs, in New York. To get he and Vicky there, Richard has to reluctantly loan money from his sinister brother who, dressed as a clergyman, makes an incestuous pass at him! This plot angle is never mentioned again - it's just there seemingly for sleazy effect.

They all manage to meet with the elderly Dobbs (Neil Flanagan) under makeup the likes of which you wouldn't see except in a local play of A Christmas Carol. This man has serious nose-hair, not to mention green-blue skin. Dobbs tells them that they must go to their ancestral home, Crenshaw House back on the same private island we saw at the start. They must stay for three days, filling the house with 'Married love'. We find out via Dobbs that there was no love between their Father and Mother, and that the three sisters, Vicky, Veronica and Elizabeth were the products of five visits only. Once the three days elapse, the inheritance will be released and dispersed.

They arrive at the house and we meet the three servants-in-residence. Dobbs will arrive later. Martha (Veronica Radburn), Hattie (Maggie Rogers) and their retarded, hunchbacked, twisted-toothed brother Colin (Hal Borske). This is the man who killed the couple at the opening of the film! Strangely, he looks different now - this is due to the fact that when the opening scene was tacked on at the insistence of the producers, they'd lost the teeth and the hump! This is according to Hal Borske's commentary on the Something Weird edition. The first thing Colin does to welcome the guests is grab a live white rabbit and eat it alive. Not nice. At least we cut to a now-dead rabbit when this is happening in this shaky, shadowy scene. Still, it doesn't seem out of character for Milligan to shoot a cruel scene like this, when you do a bit of cursory reading about the man and his life. More on that later ...

At first the couples seem happy and harmonius but something evil soon seems to infect the proceedings. The dead rabbit turns up on a bed with a note saying that "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit". Then to their horror, Richard is found dead, hanging upside down from the ceiling. Out of nowhere, the once-nice Bill reveals himself as a violent wife-beater and slaps Veronica around as he forces himself on her. A hooded, shadowy figure begins to stalk and kill the remaining couples. Helping the semi-mute Colin with moving a trunk, Bill is stunned by an attacker in the dark, tied up and disembowelled. Vicky, Elizabeth and Donald are stunned to be served up Veronica's head on a platter. Then, as the terrified survivors cower, Donald is lured away, pitchforked through the neck and stabbed viciously to death in the stomach. The killer is about to make their final move, but who is it? Is it the snaggled-toothed Colin, who obviously has violent tendencies and has to be beaten into compliance and chained at night? Is it Vicky, who aggressively told her now-dead husband that she was going to "get what's coming to her"? Or is it one of the female servants, who may or may not reveal a scandalous famly secret? Only two will survive the final blood-soaked frenzy as The Ghastly Ones reaches it's conclusion.

From some accounts Milligan was an open, but unhappy homosexual with a bleak world-view and violent tendencies. This certainly comes through in The Ghastly Ones, there's a seeping sense of corruption and hatred growing in the film, even though most of the fairly cheap, amateurish gore is in the final ten, to fifteen minutes. Though the production is rough from beginning to end, you can sense a psychosis of sorts in the scenes of bloodletting. The hooded killer really rips into his victims after he's trapped them, even when partially obscured by shadow. The blurred camerawork is frenetically on the move, further heightening our disorientation. Acting-wise, it's not too bad at all, except for the over-the-top Lawyer Dodds, who is working at pantomime level. Particularly good is Ann Linden as Vicky, who conveys lust for sex and wealth, along with decades-old bitterness and frustration at having to raise her siblings in equal measure. The sex and nude scenes between all the couples are brief but convey no real joy of the human body - basically just glimpses thrown in to seemingly satisfy the producer. The music is a library hodgepodge, no thematic consistency but not to the detriment of the film. Yet, through all the haphazard film-making, something comes through. Something admittedly sick, hate-filled and twisted, but beyond the confines of no-budget cinema and rushed production, a director's vision emerges.

In the fullness of time, you'll hopefully see a few more of this maverick film-maker's works in these pages. They're potentially far more compelling than many well-known director's efforts with fifty times the funds at their disposal.

© Boris "Greed is Good" Lugosi, 2006.

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Review written: 06/13/2006 22:37:16