This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.
Andy Milligan was an interesting fellow. One of the founders of the off-off-Broadway theatre movement, he started making films…actually, I’ve got no idea why, he wasn’t particularly a cinema fan by all accounts and he got in the habit of leaving films unfinished, either for budgetary reasons or because he just wasn’t all that interested. I watched “Compass Rose” recently, but didn’t want to write a review of it for the ISCFC because it was missing an ending, and the sound was so appalling at times that understanding what the characters were saying was genuinely impossible. But “The Ghastly Ones” appears finished (despite the last thirty seconds of the film being a black screen with “dramatic” music playing over it, clearly where the credits were supposed to go), so here goes.
A couple make their way to an apparently deserted island, presumably near-ish to New York, at some unspecified point in the past (although probably the late 19th century). They’re just the table-setting cannon fodder though, as a deranged hunchback offs them both sharpish and we cut to the stars of the film, three sisters and their husbands. Their father wrote in his will that they couldn’t get his stuff until they were all married and settled, which must have put some pressure on the last one to be single, so they head off to his house, which they are also obliged by the will to spend three days in before it’s read…on the island we just saw! The hunchback is one of the servants, along with a couple of pretty crone-like women.
The actual plot of the film is entirely unremarkable – the people in the house get bumped off by an unknown assailant, there’s a shocking reveal, and so on. If you’ve seen a slasher flick set in a big old house like this, you’ll not be surprised. But it’s the tone of the film which is worth looking at. Milligan was by all accounts a pretty unpleasant guy, a misanthrope whose attitude to humanity shone through in his films. One of the wives believes she should get more of a share, being the eldest, and despite there being murders going on around them, no-one makes much of an attempt to leave, knowing that if they do they get no money. One of the husbands rapes his wife because she won’t shut up. “The Ghastly Ones” of the title almost certainly doesn’t refer to the person doing the murdering, if you know what I mean.
Provided you know a little about the director, there’s a lot of interest in this film. But sadly, it’s buried under a fairly terrible film, both in acting and execution. The three central couples have the faintest wisps of characterisation, and the husbands all look, dress and act alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. Colin the hunchback, despite being seen murdering a couple at the beginning, isn’t the main villain of the film, and even saves the two survivors at the end. This is deeply confusing, and there’s further confusion in a red herring so absolutely blatant that it not being that person just makes no sense in terms of how they were acting.
Let’s say you’re a guest in a house which you’re about to inherit, and the servants act like horrible people to you. Do you just go “ah well, never mind” or do you ask them why they’re behaving like that, and get them to stop? At one point they’re served a decapitated head on a platter for dinner. Now, I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but my first question to the servant who brought it me would be “how the hell did this head get on this plate?”, something no-one seems curious about. Milligan’s characters show basically no agency, just waiting around to get murdered in gruesome fashion while the rest of the cast vamps it up around them. I’m prepared to be convinced that this is further part of his style, although it seems to me like he was making a splatter movie cheaply to be bottom of a few drive-in bills. But then there’s not really any gore for the entire first half of the movie, past the initial killing. It’s a very unusual affair that makes me feel my film-reviewing brain isn’t quite up to the task.
There’s a book about Milligan, “The Ghastly One: The Sex and Gore Netherworld of Andy Milligan”, which is apparently well worth reading, and “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn is working to put Milligan’s films back into circulation. He’s certainly not your typical slasher film director, and I’d rather see something like this a hundred times ahead of your average multiplex movie. But equally, I shouldn’t be afraid to say, despite all the interest around the man, his method of working and his personal style, that this film in particular was pretty rotten.
EDIT DECEMBER 2013: This is an old review with a few tweaks, as I didn’t realise it was one of the films that was banned by the VRA until yesterday. Enjoy!