Andy Milligan: The King of Staten Island’s Exploitation Cinema

Joseph Fusco
4 min readJan 21, 2021

A look back at the most shocking film director you’ve never heard of.

Image courtesy of Tumgir

Andy Milligan is not a household name. You’ve probably never heard of any of his movies. There’s a reason for that. Andy Milligan is responsible for some of the wickedest, nastiest, and cruelest exploitation films in history: The Ghastly Ones, Bloodthirsty Butchers, Guru, the Mad Monk, and perhaps the greatest title of an exploitation film — or any film, really — The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!. (Can you imagine going up to the ticket window of The Lyric Theater in Times Square in 1970 and saying, “One ticket please for the six o’clock of The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!”? Oh, if only going back in time was possible!)

Lobby card for Andy Milligan’s film The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!
Lobby card for Andy Milligan’s film The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!

When looking back at the icons of self-made, independent, regional filmmakers of the Midnight Movie age, we think of John Waters of Baltimore, George A. Romero of Pittsburgh, and Tobe Hooper of Austin. Each of them created exploitation classics that defined a genre (and dare say, a generation) and they did it cheaply, and independently. Andy Milligan however did it almost all by himself, and did it for the most part in Staten Island. By the time he died in 1991 at the age of 62, Milligan had made over 25 horror and sexploitation films for urban grindhouse markets, usually serving as his entire crew. Many of his films are lost, and the ones that survive are pretty rough to watch. Reviews for Milligan’s films were never good, and production values were generally poor. In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s assessment of The Ghastly Ones was “…It is the work of morons with cameras.” To put it bluntly, his films were very crudely made, however they were without question, uniquely his films. For better of worse, nobody made films like Andy Milligan. What he might have lacked in artistry, he more than made up for in audacity.

[The only director who should be allowed to make the Trump movie is] Andy Milligan - Patton Oswalt

Theater was Milligan’s first love, having directed for Off-Off Broadway theater groups like La Mama and Caffe Cino. He took that “let’s put on a show” spirit (and lack of funds and resources) and created his films primarily on his own, usually out of necessity. He wrote, directed, photographed, edited, built the sets, and sewed the costumes for nearly all of his exploitation films.

While many of his best known films take place in England during the Dark Ages, they were, in fact, mostly filmed in and around his Staten Island neighborhood. His films can be hard to locate, so I was thrilled when TCM Underground honored Milligan by showing his 1970 Middle Ages epic film Guru, the Mad Monk earlier this year. It is a cruel, mean-spirited, gory epic about a sadistic priest that depicts eye-gouging, decapitations, and tongues being cut out with scissors.

NSFW Trailer for Guru, the Mad Monk via YouTube

In 1965, Milligan made one film that should get more credit than it does. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s filmmaking, Milligan armed himself with a 16mm newsreel camera and made his first and only non-horror film, a 30-minute drama entitled Vapors. Set in a gay bathhouse on St. Marks Place (now the location of BarCade, previously the location of Kim’s Video), Vapors is the story of a young man going to the bathhouse for the first time, seeking an anonymous assignation that is never consummated.

Vapors takes place primarily in one room, and has the look and feel of the black-and-white movie version of a small downtown theater production. In spite of all of its technical flaws, Vapors attempted to depict an aspect of gay life in New York City in the 1960s in a fairly realistic and respectful manner. What makes Vapors so quietly revolutionary, is that LGBTQ issues were not typically addressed in such a way in mainstream films or underground films at that time. Make no mistake, there is some flamboyant camp, and in some respects, very offensive characterizations by today’s standards of the denizens of the bathhouse. But the main two characters are quite shy, restrained, and relatable. It is an intelligent and sensitive film that, that had it received any positive acclaim at the time, Milligan’s career might have gone in a completely different direction. It was generally ignored and Milligan started working in exploitation, as that is what paid the bills.

Scene from Andy Milligan’s film Vapors via YouTube

Was Andy Mulligan a no-talent hack, or a misunderstood artist? Perhaps he was both — who knows? What we do know is that he left an indelible mark on the history of underground exploitation films. And thanks to him, we know that The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! Consider yourself warned.

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Joseph Fusco

Joseph Fusco is a writer, director, actor, and drummer from New York City.