Pete’s Peek | Nightbirds and The Body Beneath – resurrecting the twisted cinema of Andy Milligan

The reason why I love the BFI’s Flipside series is their ability to unearth genuine nuggets of cinematic obscurities. Their latest find is the dark demented cinema of the 1960s fleapit filmmaker, Andy Milligan. Now, I have only ever heard of Milligan because he made pictures with luridly enticing titles like The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! and famously got one of his films, 1969’s The Ghastly Ones, branded a video nasty in the UK in the 1980s. But I have never seen any, until now.

While Milligan shot most of his bizarre bargain bin oddities on New York’s Staten Island, the director was invited to London around 1968 to weave his vagrant visual magic on five features, two of which appear on this BFI Flipside release.

Nightbirds (1970) is a disturbing black and white psychodrama about a possessive woman who shacks up with a naïve young homeless man in a dingy flat overlooking East London’s Spitalfields Market (it’s still there today), then subjects the poor lad to emotional and psychological abuse. The second feature is the ghoulish fun horror, The Body Beneath (1970), about a coven of vampires living on Hampstead Heath, who hatch a diabolical plan to ensure their survival for another century.

The two-hander Nightbirds is reminiscent of a fringe theatre play as shot by Warhol Factory favourite, Paul Morrissey. It’s rough and ready, but the raw emotion that the leads (Julie Shaw and Berwick Kaler) bring to the screen makes for compulsive viewing. The Body Beneath is much more comical affair – think Carry on Screaming fused with a Derek Jarman film. With its blue-faced vampires wafting around the elaborate gardens of a grand house in Hampstead, flouncy 70s fashions and a camp sermon-spouting Reverend (Gavin Reed), Milligan’s first foray into horror is a delicious treat. The film’s highlight is the bacchanalian orgy of the undead, that looks like it was styled by Alternative Miss World’s Andrew Logan.

These two releases are only seeing the light of day because of self-confessed Milligan fan, Nicolas Winding Refn – the Danish director of the über-cool noir thriller Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. The story of how he resurrected these underground obscurities is passionately detailed in the booklet that comes with the release.

Nightbirds and The Body Beneath are a Dual Format (Blu-ray and DVD) BFI release, available from 28 May

Little Joe magazine presents Andy Milligan’s Vapors and Nightbirds, introduced by Stephen Thrower, on Tuesday 29 May, 7pm at The Cinema Museum in London. Click here for tickets.

The house that appears in The Body Beneath was also used for the setting of the legendary Rolling Stones photo shoot for their Beggars Banquet album. Sarum Chase, at 23 West Heath Road, was once the home of artist Francis Owen Salisbury, and was used as a school before turning back into a private residence in 2009.

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