A Month of Horror on the Fringes (Day 20): The Body Beneath (1970)

Apparently the word auteur gets kicked around a lot when it comes to writer-director Andy Milligan. It’s true that his films have a signature vision, and there are similarities between his films that echo a singular creative impulse – at times, resembling festering neuroses that only filmed drama can appropriately express. But, to echo Milligan’s biggest fanboy, writer-director-Milligan collector Nicolas Winding Refn, Milligan’s films are distinguished “first by their crudeness, and then by how difficult it was to sit through them.” The Body Beneath is possibly one of the crudeness-est, and difficult-est, to sit through of the fringe cinema that Milligan has come to define. It’s quite probably an impossible film to view without drifting into unrelentingly bored distraction; then ennui, then mild contempt. It’s the kind of film that leads you from the first to the third person – encouraging you to drift out of your body. Soon you’re seeing yourself seeing the film, transcended, and wondering just what about it made you escape your body.

It’s remarkable just how little actually happens in The Body Beneath. In the prologue, a young woman is set upon by three vampires in blueface in a graveyard. At the same time, we are introduced to the Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed), a man whose clear disdain for others is matched only by the length of his family tree – “Did you know the Fords go back to Roman times? 98 B.C. in fact,” he says with a nasally sneer. “I know everything, Dear Boy.” He is a priest who does horoscopes – and can guess one’s planetary alignment with pinpoint dismissiveness. It’s apparently a source of pride to pigeonhole others so readily into neat, little, tiny boxes. Reverend Ford has come back to town to reopen All Soul’s Church (of course) and Carfax Abbey (doubly of course – a place that only exists in Dracula texts), but it’s clear from the get-go there’s more to his story.

Or at least you hope there is, but we’re thrust into a love scene just when a plot starts to appear. Now it becomes clear that Milligan is more comfortable shooting characters with their clothes off than on. In the throes of passion we are introduced to Susan (Jackie Skarvellis) and Paul (Richmond Ross), two young lovers without too much to go on (I suppose Susan kind of has an Amy Winehouse vibe). Susan is kidnapped by the Reverend for reasons first unknown, and Paul has to save her.

It turns out Reverend Ford is a vampire, and the blood they need can only come from “pure” blood from within the family – rather incestuously so. Over the centuries, the purity of the Ford blood has been diluted through inbreeding. I think. The plot is preposterous, and it doesn’t help that it’s often couched in nonsensical dialogue. Here’s a token piece of narrative fidelity: The Reverend tells his prey at one point, “Words mean nothing, my dear. ACTIONS speak louder!” The very next sentence, he segues into his evil Seven Point Plan! (Like an evil PowerPoint presentation, and just as dull.) There’s a hunchback named Spool who tries to help Susan escape, but he’s discovered and crucified in the garden. The end of the film is a yearly meeting of the Ford souls, including a Caesar, probably in the basement of the Abbey, where they muse about going to America, since the curfews in London don’t encourage their stalking for prey. Spool is fed to the spirits. Susan wakes up a vampire, infests Paul, and they embrace.

It is hard not to see The Body Beneath outside of Milligan’s is-there-isn’t-there homosexuality. I also think it’s safe to say Gavin Reed completely owns the picture with a camp performance that could best be described as a self-hating gay man, whose contempt for others is a thin veil for his own internal loathing. He sees others as a means to an end, parasites; but he’s the vampire. The Reverend acts out a part (much like being a Reverend, now that I think of it) but hasn’t come to accept himself . Even the “courtroom” scene at the end is a kind of trial for Reverend Ford to act out his leadership in the Ford vampire community, and his proposal to exile to America feels half-baked. But if it’s read as a refuge for their status as outsiders, and the filmmaker’s own outsider sexual status, a subtext is found:

“But to go to America?! What is America? What is it made of? Pimps, prostitutes, religious fanatics, thrown out of England but a few short centuries ago. They are the scum of the earth!…”
“Look around you. All of this may end if we do not leave to this new continent. Our relatives living in Canada and America are remarkably healthy specimens. We cannot exist another 100 years unless we bring them into our family.”

But to get back to Refn’s point, this is all accomplished with such cruelty of cinematic form one can barely get to this point without ambivalence. Visuals are collected from dregs of better films, while the narrative propels itself on fumes, according to expected motions. Milligan’s focus was not on making a film that could, through even accidental quality, conceal and augment his own subversive aims – but to give the audience what was expected, and complain about it during the telling. The way it rails against a system, pick one, was the message. So, much like the viewership itself, when you find Milligan’s films angrily screaming against their lot in life, this is probably when they’re most honest.

Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!

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