Even in the age of boutique label reissues and abundant cinema blogs, Andy Milligan and his body of work are still a cult within a cult amongst cinema fans. If his name is mentioned at all, it is usually only in a passing (and unfavorable) comparison to fellow microbudget movie maker Ed Wood.
The utter lack of technical talent or ready cash may be the only things the two men have in common. Ed Wood films are deadly earnest in their plea to be loved, where even the kinky bits are heteronormatively smoothed into something as soft and cuddly as Wood’s beloved angora sweaters.
An Andy Milligan picture is one gay man’s diary of trauma and rage masquerading as a decades long film career. A cheap handheld camera swirls through barely coherent plots full of incest, bloody death, a parade of screaming sadists and their long suffering (and often literal) gimps. Be it The Ghastly Ones, Seeds, Torture Dungeon….no one ever gets a happy ending, or even hope for one, if Andy can help it.
If Ed Wood just wants a hug, Andy Milligan wants the entire world to burn. To get a glimpse into why, we have to go back. Before the constant grind of selling gore and sex, before exploitation impresario William Mishkin, when a young Andy was still a playwright.
The Caffe Ciro was one of those uniquely New York institutions, created as an actual cafe, but quickly becoming a hangout and staging space for an ever-rotating cast of misfits and artists. As depicting homosexuality on stage was still illegal, the Caffe Ciro’s anything goes nature made it a mecca of early queer theater, and the inventor of the idea “off off Broadway”.
It was here a very young Andy cut his teeth, doing everything from writing plays, to acting, to set building, to designing costumes for the rotating parade of outrageous productions. Having gotten a hold of a secondhand Auricon camera and wanting to experiment with film, he paid his friend (and sometimes actress) Hope Stansbury to adapt her play The Sunflower into the 1965 short film Vapors.
Vapors spends almost its entire 32-minute runtime in a tiny room inside the St. Marks’ Baths. A young man named Thomas (Gerald Jacuzzo), sits alone in his cubicle, idly waiting for a potential pick up to come by. He is rejected as a bit too scrawny by a gaggle of catty fellow patrons, passing the night commenting on the trade and its various tricks. Instead, an older man named Mr. Jaffee (Robert Dahdah) reluctantly joins Thomas, blaming his shyness on it being his first time at the steam baths.
This is still an Andy Milligan movie, so what starts out as standard awkward small talk between lonely strangers becomes something far more raw and sinister. Mr. Jaffee returns from downstairs with sodas for the pair, and things slowly begin to darken at the edges.
Thomas was lying about his experience at the baths in an attempt to impress. Mr. Jaffee is closeted and married, with a palpable shudder in his voice as he rants about his wife’s used sanitary pads and ugly feet, the mundane realities of his suburban life.
Milligan’s tiny handheld camera keeps him practically on top of his actors, the tight space even more claustrophobic. The constant mechanical clank of the camera is not obscured by background music.
Meanwhile, our gaggle of bitchy queens chatter and cackle with occasional interjections, like the cruising version of the witches in Macbeth. Their casual cruelty is the closest thing we get to relief.
By the time Mr. Jaffee recounts the death of his young son via drowning, and that he is marking the anniversary sitting there with Thomas, it is suffocating. Rambling about how his boy loved sunflowers, he begs to touch Thomas’ face because of its similarity to his lost child. Half mad with grief and longing, what should read as camp melodrama is oddly affecting.
Mr. Jaffee heads downstairs again, promising Thomas a gift. Soon our Greek chorus hands Thomas a box, explaining that Mr. Jaffee instructed them to deliver it to him as he left. Opening the package reveals a huge paper sunflower, a memorial for a boy Thomas has never met and could never be.
Shaken by the bizarre intimacy of his encounter with Mr. Jaffee, he invites a passerby into his room for the comparatively less penetrative act of casual sex. The stranger’s full frontal nudity (censored in all surviving prints, but not in the original theatrical runs) fills the screen as it cuts to black.
Vapors is not only important as one of the few cinematic clues as to the source of some of the unrelenting snarling rage that dominates Andy Milligan’s later work, but as a window on a very specifically queer coded anxiety and isolation. In the pre-Stonewall era, where the very idea of gay community and desire was criminalized, even the supposed hedonism of a bawdy bathhouse was just another gray gloom. A poisoned hothouse where even paper flowers failed to bloom, any sense of connection as misty as the tendrils of steam drifting toward the fading light.
By G.G. Graham, they/them (1st choice) she/her (2nd choice) as the midnightmoviemonster persona is a rotting monster separate from the femme person who writes it all up, if that makes any sense
G.G. Graham is a cult film cryptid, horror hag, and exploitation film explorer of the dusty and disreputable corners of cinema history. The street preacher of Z-grade cinema can be found writing for a host of genre sites, and is the head midnight movie monster at the blog Shock, Schlock & Leftover Film Stock.