Guru the Mad Monk (1970) *½
The infuriating part of Jimmy McDonough’s Andy Milligan biography, The Ghastly One, is the appendix listing all of Milligan’s known films, together with whatever technical data on them the author could dig out of Milligan’s increasingly addled brain in the few years before his death when the two men were in contact. Obviously that’s a rather odd word with which to describe any part of a book about somebody I never met, in whom I have no personal investment of any kind, but what the hell could be infuriating about a filmographical appendix specifically? Simple. Among the data recorded for each title is whether or not any print, in whatever condition, is currently known to exist, and if McDonough’s detective work can be trusted, the majority of Milligan’s movies— including virtually all of those closest to his heart, the crazed, semi-pornographic melodramas whereby he explored both the dark side of New York’s gay underground and his own raging, pathological misogyny— are now lost. And make no mistake, when we say “lost” in connection with an Andy Milligan movie, there is practically no chance that we really mean merely misplaced. The Times Square grindhouse scene that accounted for most of Millgian’s business did not give the cube root of a shit for archival preservation, and only rarely was more than one print struck of any film produced expressly for that milieu. Meanwhile, distributors, exhibitors, and even projectionists would steal, sell, trade, and not infrequently just flat-out lose prints, treating individual films as essentially expendable unless they were tremendous money-makers. Nor did Milligan take better care of his stuff than he took of himself, so if he didn’t have a print of a given picture in his possession at the time of his death, then chances are nobody does. The odds, then, of us ever seeing Tricks of the Trade, The Naked Witch (not to be confused with Larry Buchanan’s horror nudie of the same name), Gutter Trash, The Promiscuous Sex, or the unreleased original version of The Weirdo are so slight that even the rediscovery of The Janus Head or King Kong Appears in Edo looks like a safer bet. What has survived of the Milligan oeuvre— and what were indeed fairly readily available during the first flowering of home video in the 1980’s, despite their scarcity today— are the products of Milligan’s second filmmaking career, the impossibly low-budget horror pictures on which he concentrated his efforts throughout the 70’s.
It isn’t hard to fathom why that should be. Horror was always more marketable than Milligan’s mad visions of domestic rancor and romantic exploitation, and The Ghastly Ones was easily his most successful and widely seen film of the 60’s. Movies like The Body Beneath and The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! could be sold to distributors with connections far beyond 42nd Street. They could support the creation of at least a couple extra prints, so that their long-term survival would not be totally dependent upon Milligan’s ability to get them back from whatever con-man was circulating them to theaters once the latter had lost interest, and to avoid losing or destroying them by accident subsequently. And perhaps most importantly, they didn’t have their market completely kicked out from under them by changing tastes and evolving legal standards. Indeed, that was why Milligan started making horror films in the first place. In the 60’s, grindhouse audiences would put up with a lot of “extraneous” material in exchange for even a hint of sex, especially when the extraneous material in question was as dementedly sleazy as an Andy Milligan story. In any case, the “redeeming artistic value” standard that governed obscenity jurisprudence at the time left them little choice in the matter. The advent of modern pornography at the turn of the 70’s removed all pressure in favor of such toleration, however, and movies of the sort in which Milligan originally specialized could no longer find any buyers. Even home video was no help in the end. By the time it came along, trailing new and hungry niche markets in its wake, Lew Miskin (the son of Milligan’s usual distributor, William Mishkin, who increasingly took control of the family business from the 1970’s on) had long since ordered most of his company’s sexploitation back-catalogue destroyed in the interest of saving a few bucks on warehouse-rental overhead.
These days, of course, Milligan’s horror pictures offer their would-be viewers almost as much frustration as his vanished sexploitation pieces. Although they could once be found on the shelves of independent video rental shops across the English-speaking world (hell, the first Blockbuster to open up in Anne Arundel County had a Milligan title or two!), all but a few were driven out of print in the late 80’s, once the major studios belatedly accepted the new medium as something more than an invitation to piracy. That is, The Man with Two Heads, The Bloodthirsty Butchers, and the rest got released on videotape in the first place mainly because the big Hollywood firms were initially terrified of people watching movies on a recordable format in an environment not subject to industry control; outfits like Midnight Video and World Pictures needed something to put in their catalogues, though, and independent distributors like Mishkin were willing to deal. Most of those labels are out of business now, and their DVD-age successors have unfortunately (if understandably) taken a pass on Milligan for the most part.
That brings us to Guru, the Mad Monk, one of the handful of Milligan’s films that have been issued on DVD. Guru looks at first glance like a plausible choice for such an honor. With a reported cost of $11,000, it was one of Milligan’s better-funded productions (don’t laugh!), and it was his first to be shot on 35mm film with theoretically professional-grade audio. However, Guru the Mad Monk is also the movie that Milligan himself identified as the worst he ever made. Let me reiterate, to make sure the full magnitude of that statement sinks in: Guru is the Andy Milligan movie that Andy Milligan thought was awful!
Somewhere off Europe’s Baltic coast is the isle of Mortavia, a sort of international penal colony ruled directly by the Catholic Church. Nearly the only inhabitants of the island who are not incarcerated and awaiting some much more horrible punishment are the staff of the Lost Souls’ Church of Mortavia, who are charged with administering both those horrible punishments and the sacraments of absolution that mockingly go along with them. One such staffer is a lad named Carl (Paul Lieber), who unexpectedly finds himself locking up an old girlfriend of his one morning. Carl and Nadja (Judith Israel) had been very much in love, but the girl simply disappeared some years ago. As she now has a chance to explain, she was kidnapped by a band of Gypsy brigands, and forced to become the lover of their chief. Eventually she became pregnant, and not wanting her child to be raised in that environment, she tried to run away; rather stupidly, she waited to do so until the baby was due any minute. Not only did that mean a considerable impairment to her fleeing abilities, but it also ensured that she would have to give birth alone, in the wilderness, under the worst possible conditions. Inevitably the infant died. Also inevitably, the Gypsies caught up to Nadja, and when they found her burying the tiny corpse, they turned her over to the authorities on charges of infanticide. Thus it is that Nadja is here on Mortavia, slated for execution in just a few days.
Carl is understandably horrified. Nevermind what the court has to say on the subject— he believes Nadja, and he knows there must be something he can do to avert the looming injustice. Carl happens to be very close to Father Guru (Neil Flanagan, of Seeds and The Ghastly Ones), the priest of the Lost Souls’ Church, and has the utmost faith in his mercy and rectitude. Surely Father Guru will not let an innocent girl be put do death. Carl is right about the priest’s willingness to save Nadja, but the terms on which Guru agrees to do so suggest that neither mercy nor rectitude is the underlying motivation. Rather, Guru makes a dangerous deal with his subordinate. Necessary though it may be to the orderly functioning of society, Mortavia is seen by the Catholic hierarchy as a distasteful and disreputable enterprise, and the Lost Souls’ Church is not well supported by the institution of which it is an appendage. The island is tiny and barren, too, so there’s no realistic possibility of Guru’s church making up the funding shortfall with agriculture or handicrafts the way so many monasteries do. The only resource the Lost Souls’ Church has in any abundance is the corpses of executed felons, and Father Guru has taken selling those under the table to medical schools all over the mainland. If Carl will agree to act as Guru’s agent in that grim trade for the next three months, the priest will arrange to fake Nadja’s death, and to keep her safely hidden in the Church until Carl’s period of body-snatching indenture is over. Carl is less than thrilled with the bargain, but it’s obviously his lover’s best chance at survival.
Guru sends Carl to see Olga (Jaqueline Webb), a reclusive woman who lives on Mortavia because her reputation as a witch makes it more or less impossible for her to live anywhere else. Olga gives Carl a drug for Father Guru to administer to Nadja with the wine for her final communion; it will put the girl into a temporary cataleptic trance, at which point Guru can convincingly declare her dead and order her buried at once. Then Carl can then dig her up again, and assuming he works fast enough, Nadja will be none the worse for the experience. Of course Olga, like Guru, names a price for this service. She claims to be performing experiments which require a great deal of blood, and which have now progressed far enough that the animal blood she’s been using hitherto will no longer suffice. What Olga wants in return for her pharmacological expertise is immediate access to the bodies of everyone executed in the Mortavia dungeons, so that she might extract their blood before Guru sells them for classroom use. Again Carl doesn’t like the sound of this, but again he sees no alternative if Nadja is to be saved.
There isn’t very much in the way of plot after Nadja is dug up, revived, and ensconced in the tower of the Lost Souls’ Church. Mainly, we just spend the next 45 minutes or so watching Guru and Olga confirm over and over again that they’re not nice people. Father Guru, it turns out, has a split personality, and the Hyde to his Jekyll is as bad as you’d expect from a man whose good side freely admits to being a self-serving hypocrite and makes the bulk of his living robbing graves. Olga is not merely a witch, but a vampire as well, and she and Guru have been conducting an affair in secret ever since she came to Mortavia. Both of them form nefarious designs on Nadja (which Carl is far too dense to notice) even before she catches the priest murdering a Swedish sailor (Ron Keith, from Vapors and Fleshpot on 42nd Street) and a girl (Julia Wills) who comes to the church seeking sanctuary from her father’s incestuous lust. About the one person who might be able to help Nadja is Guru’s pet hunchback, Igor (Jack Spencer), who is obviously very fond of her, but Igor has both the mind of a child and an intense (if utterly misplaced) loyalty to the killer priest. He could prove a most inconstant ally even if he did decide to stand up for Nadja. Then at last, Bishop Kopel (Frank Echols) and Father Polanski (Jerry Giacuzzo, of Torture Dungeon and The Man with Two Heads) come around bearing word that the latter is to take Guru’s place running the show on Mortavia, and the Guignol turns Grand indeed— or at any rate, as Grand as it can on $11,000.
This has little to do with anything, really, but it’s the first thing that jumped out at me about Guru the Mad Monk: Father Guru, although certainly mad, isn’t a monk! (The second thing that jumped out at me, for the record, was the obvious inappropriateness of a clergyman in late-Medieval eastern Europe having an Indo-Iranian name.) Or on second thought, maybe it is relevant, given that the myriad subliminal incongruities dotted throughout Guru the Mad Monk are easily the most dependable source of its limited entertainment value. The Lost Souls’ Church of Mortavia was a regular, functioning house of worship somewhere on Staten Island, picked presumably because its gothic exterior harmonized well enough with the Dark Ages setting of the film. And indeed from the outside it usually is fairly convincing as what it’s supposed to be, so long as one doesn’t dwell too long on the sign affixed to the wrought-iron gate— which is printed (how?) in English (why?) on a large sheet of poster board glued somewhat haphazardly over the church’s real sign (ha!). The interiors are another matter, though, with their conspicuous modern appurtenances like light switches, retrofitted electric wiring running along the walls in telltale metal sheaths, and so forth. Mind you, even the exterior shots of the church go delightfully awry on a couple of occasions. It becomes cumulatively obvious, for example, that Milligan permits himself only the tightest framing on the outside of the building because he’s trying to prevent whatever was next door, behind, or across the street from it becoming visible. Ironically, one of the things that gives the game away was obviously intended to shore up verisimilitude instead. Staten being a considerably larger island than Mortavia is claimed to be, Milligan had to provide his own ocean sounds at the soundtrack mixing stage, and all those crashing waves and squawking seagulls we hear whenever the action ventures out in front of the property do nothing but to underscore the fact that we never see so much as a single establishing shot of a beach! There’s also a nearly hypnotic compositional fuck-up when Guru goes out to greet Bishop Kopel and Father Polanski. Milligan allows a blindingly white Vespa motor scooter parked just behind the fence to be visible throughout the entire scene, from two or three different camera angles. At first I assumed that had to have been an artifact of the parallax problem inherent to Milligan’s trusty old Auricon camera (on which the viewfinder was completely separate from the lens, so that camera and operator never saw exactly the same image), but Guru wasn’t shot on the Auricon. For this movie, Milligan used a bigger, more sophisticated 35mm system with view-through-lens aiming, so he had nobody but himself to blame for the Vespa.
The new camera did, however, introduce serious problems of its own, and those problems go a long way toward explaining how Guru the Mad Monk came out so clunky and leaden that not even its creator could defend it. Wretched though they might have been, Milligan’s earlier movies had always been notorious for their manically kinetic cinematography— few if any of the scripts surviving from his Auricon days are without the notation “CAMERA SWIRL” in one spot or another, indicating some especially frantic maneuver. The 35mm rig used on Guru was too heavy to be swirled, however, and the cinematography in this movie is static, uninventive, and frankly boring. That’s doubly unfortunate, because Guru’s story is also static, uninventive, and frankly boring. It will come as no surprise to those who see it that Milligan was a playwright in New York’s coffee-house theater scene before he started making movies, because it feels more like a spiteful little threadbare one-act on the evil and hypocrisy of organized religion than the horror film as which it bills itself. It’s very contained and stagy, and seems much more interested in exposing its characters’ sins and vices than in moving any sort of plot along. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but if you mean to go that route, you really do need actors. Milligan, as always, had merely some people whose senses of self-preservation were sufficiently underdeveloped for them to become and remain his friends, plus a few locals who couldn’t resist a come-on like, “Hey— you wanna be in a movie?” Neil Flanagan had worked with Milligan often enough by this point that he was getting almost good at it (indeed, he was one of the elite few among Andy’s regulars who would go on to have an acting career apart from Milligan in later years), but the rest of the bunch are so hopeless that I was not surprised in the least to discover that most of them had no other film or television credits to their names. Conversely, I was astonished to learn that Paul Lieber, despite showing no promise whatsoever here as Carl, has been impressively busy with television guest appearances for the last 30 years. I can’t agree in good conscience that Guru the Mad Monk is Andy Milligan’s worst film; I mean, his later Monstrosity is bad in ways that hadn’t even been invented yet in 1970. It is, however, conventional enough to be lacking in most of the things that make Milligan’s movies interesting in spite of their badness, and might therefore be fairly characterized as the least appealing of his surviving work.