Video Nasties #2: The Ghastly Ones (1968)
By Witney Seibold on August 9, 2014
The phrase “Video Nasties” refers to 72 feature films that were banned or scrutinized by the British Board of Film Censors for being too disgusting for distribution. Nerdist author Witney Seibold is going to watch and review all 72 of them. This week, he’ll be looking at Andy Milligan’s The Ghastly Ones, known as Blood Rites in England.
Andy Milligan is an important figure in the underground New York horror movie wave of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Based in Staten Island, Milligan gadded about with the then-nascent Off-Broadway scene, making queer-friendly plays and other off-the-wall productions. He also wrote and directed over 30 low-budget feature films in his day, all hewing very carefully to the cheap, grindhouse aesthetic of nearby New York Z-grade theaters. This was a man who once said that the films of Russ Meyer were “too glossy” for his taste. Although he married a woman, Milligan was openly gay, and had notoriously brief relationships. He died in 1991, a victim of AIDS.
I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of Milligan until I hunkered down to watch The Ghastly Ones for the purposes of this essay. However well-versed you think you are in movies, pop culture, or fringe culture artists, there is always going to be another important personality lurking around the corner. After having seen The Ghastly Ones (released in England as Blood Rites), I feel like I need to see more of Milligan’s films, just to have a better sense of East Coast horror cinema of the late 1960s, and to better know this peculiar parallel blood-soaked stepchild to the No Wave movement that was also going on at the time.
To characterize The Ghastly Ones: This film was made on the very cheap (it was shot on 16mm film), and the home video versions of it were duped from a very old print, including degraded sound and long green scratches across the screen. Some may find this distracting, although I admit that such visual and aural imperfections can often lend a film an appealing “midnight movie” quality. The Ghastly Ones has a surprisingly solid script, and may be a contender for being one of the first proper slasher movies, a distinction usually given to Halloween, Black Christmas, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
There are several titillating sex scenes in the film, but they don’t have the definite ring of gratuity about them; they are included more as a mater of course rather than as a sexy intermission to the action. Milligan also included a scene wherein the lead male character reveals that he once had a brief affair with a gay friend. His bisexuality is incidental, and only mentioned in that one scene. There’s a refreshing straightforwardness to the queer elements of the film; they are included because Milligan was interested in including them, and not because he was going for a brief moment of “gay shock.”
To compare this film to last week’s Blood Feast: Herschell Gordon Lewis was a gorehound, but he had a little boy’s wicked enthusiasm for the blood. His films were lurid and shocking, but the shock can sometimes feel quaint, even cute. He’s a 9-year-old singing “Great Green Gobs of Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts.” The Ghastly Ones, by contrast, features plenty of gore, but Milligan was clearly more interested in the theatricality of it; there is a slightly more classical bent to the violence, sort of subtly pervading through the blunt cheapness. Milligan’s film may be incredibly crude, but he seems to be shooting for grand guingol rather than grindhouse. Does that make the film good? Not really. The Ghastly Ones is a bit of a snore, but I appreciate its attempts at classiness.
The story is pretty simple. Three sisters (Carol Vogel, Anne Linden, and Eileen Hayes) and their respective husbands (Richard Romanus, Fib LaBlaque, and Don Williams) are instructed by the women’s late father in a will to spend three nights at a long-lost country estate. The intention is to have them have sex there and allow the musty old house to experience marital bliss, something their late father never had. If they do so, they’ll inherit gobs of money.
The six of them arrive, and are greeted by the house’s two caretakers, Hattie and Martha (Maggie Rogers and Veronica Radburn), and their mongoloid hunchback sidekick Colin (Hal Borske). Colin, by the way, murders two people right at the film’s outset, hacking off their limbs for no good reason. When he meets our main characters, he immediately eats a live rabbit in front of them. Why they allow Colin to wander around free, much less work as a bellhop, is beyond me.
As the nights progress, people begin getting offed. Red “X”s in blood appear on their doors or on their clothing, dead animals appear in their beds, and severed heads are accidentally served for dinner. Who is the killer, and why are they killing people? I’ll reveal nothing.
The gore effects in this film are fleshy and gross and pretty realistic. When Colin hacks off a limb, it takes a few swings, and we see the meatiness of a human thigh in close-up. When the hooded killer pushes a man down and begins sawing away at his stomach with a hand saw, we can see blood and gray giblets fly out of the wound. I have a feeling as I continue to trek through the Video Nasties, the gore effects will only become more and more explicit. Bear in mind: Cannibal Holocaust is still ahead of us.
Note: The haunted surf/rockabilly band The Ghastly Ones took their name from this film. I only mention this because The Ghastly Ones are a pretty fun band.
Until next week, sickos, stay horny, weird, and bloodthirsty. Join me then for Lee Frost’s Nazi-themed women-in-prison film Love Camp 7 (1969).