‘Sexually rampant ghouls, depraved souls… and blood-red roses!’
The Body Beneath is a 1969 horror feature film written and directed by American auteur Andy Milligan (The Ghastly Ones; Bloodthirsty Butchers; Blood).
The movie stars Gavin Reed, Jackie Skarvellis, Berwick Kaler, Richmond Ross, Emma Jones and Colin Gordon (House of Mystery).
The Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford, a vampire residing at Carfax Abbey in London, wishes to revive his ailing bloodline, which has deteriorated due to inbreeding.
With the help of his mute wife, Alicia, his hunchback servant, Spool, and a gang of female vampires, he sets about contacting the last few members of the Ford family not already converted.
After abducting a distant relative, Susan Ford, whose role is to sire a new army of vampire babies, the Reverend convenes a vampire feast where the future of the Ford clan will be decided…
A tale of inbred vampires cruising the outermost branches of their family tree for new blood, this was the second of five films made in London by Andy Milligan in the late 1960s (the first, Nightbirds, was shot immediately before it, in late Autumn 1968).
Milligan generally preferred period-settings for his horror films (the late 1800s in The Ghastly Ones; medieval England in Torture Dungeon), although his ultra-low budgets and nonchalant approach to mise-en-scène resulted in numerous visual anachronisms.
The Body Beneath is the reverse angle: a modern-day drama one could almost mistake for ‘period’. The primary location is a Neo-Tudor house with carefully preserved Victorian furnishings, the women wear flouncy dresses of uncertain vintage, and two of the main characters, an evil vicar and a hunchbacked simpleton, could have stepped out of a Gothic Victorian fantasy. However, the glimpses of formica surfaces and Kays Catalogue knitwear are intentional this time; we’re definitely in the 1960s.
Villainous bloodsucker the Reverend Ford, marvellously played by Gavin Reed, is The Body Beneath’s most compelling creation. Reed (who died in 1990 at the age of just 59) knew precisely how to handle Milligan’s dauntingly overwritten material. With a lofty, supercilious attitude and immaculate diction he is an excellent mischief-maker. “I was reading the papers – The Times of course – when I came across your name in the arrivals,” he sniffs to Canadian relative Graham Ford (Note how actor Colin Gordon starts to improve his own enunciation in response, as if cowed by the Reverend’s impeccable English).
Furthermore, Milligan gives Reed most of the best lines: when hammering six-inch nails through the hands of his hunchbacked servant Spool as punishment for disloyalty, he muses, “It’s strange… I have no soul, yet I feel compassion. It doesn’t make sense, does it?”
The Body Beneath appears to have been Reed’s only major role; he had a couple of parts in obscure TV shows in the 1960s, plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as a camp window-dresser in Carry on Loving (1970), but that’s about all.
At some point in the 1970s he moved to the USA, but there’s an eleven year gap between Carry on Loving and his appearance in the oddball Bruce Dern vehicle Tattoo (1981). He turned up again as a snide theatre director bullying Dustin Hoffman in the early scenes of Tootsie (1982) but seems to have done little else on the big screen. Perhaps the theatre was his natural home?
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A well-shot frisky scene introduces second-billed Jackie Skarvellis, and again, Milligan is well served; Skarvellis is a vivid, energetic performer who takes a relatively uninteresting character and makes her watchable. It’s rather a pity she wasn’t given a villainous role, because Milligan writes for his monsters far better than his heroines, and Skarvellis is the sort of performer who would gleefully sink her teeth into such an opportunity. Chiefly a theatre actor, she was one of the uninhibited London cast of the nudist stage show “Oh! Calcutta!” and went on to a busy career as actor, writer and stage director which continues to this day.
Berwick Kaler, who plays Spool, can barely recall making The Body Beneath, but says that his role took no more than two or three days to shoot. The main thing he remembers about ‘playing hunchback’ is that Milligan wanted him to stoop too much. Milligan may have been over-egging things, but since Spool comes across more like a child’s distant memory of The Hunchback of Notre Dame than a plausible depiction of disability perhaps it was simply a case of the director failing to convey the required tone to the performers. Either that, or he liked to see Kaler bent over…
Milligan’s stories often involve the travails of families riven by hatred, and The Body Beneath is no exception. The Fords’ vampire bloodline has been weakened by inbreeding requiring new donors, hence the Reverend’s attempt to track down and exsanguinate distant kinfolk.
With smarmy relatives popping round for tea, and stilted conversation before murder, the film is like one of Mike Leigh’s suburban comedies crossed with an episode of the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows.
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“Set in the graveyards of England!” boasts the US one-sheet for The Body Beneath, and indeed, the film begins with an atmospheric scene in Highgate Cemetery. Chiefly, however, The Body Beneath takes place in a brooding Neo-Tudor mansion, Sarum Chase, which was built in 1932 near London’s Hampstead Heath.
The owner, Frances Owen Salisbury, died in 1962 and left the house to the British Council of Churches, after which it was available for film and photoshoots (see the gatefold inner sleeve of The Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet” album and the nudie short Miss Frankenstein R.I.P.).
Milligan gathered some wonderfully creepy shots at Sarum Chase, staged a crude ‘crucifixion’ in the mansion’s ornate gardens (one wonders how the British Council of Churches would have reacted), and returned a few months later to shoot a werewolf movie Curse of the Full Moon – later released in the States as The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!.
In 1968, vampires and Gothic horror in general were still very popular in the UK, therefore Milligan’s decision to venture into the supernatural made sound commercial sense. Yet for reasons that remain unclear he eschewed the classic image-pool from which he could have drawn. The vampires in The Body Beneath have no fangs, they can move around in the daylight (albeit with special injections to counteract the sun), and they spend more time bickering with their victims than gnashing at their throats.
Given that their leader lives in the liturgical splendour of ‘Carfax Abbey’ and wears priestly garb, one supposes too that this clan of peculiar bloodsuckers are immune to the effects of crucifixes and clerical paraphernalia, although this is never explicitly put to the test. Only in the semi-comedic and thoroughly wonderful Blood (1974) did Milligan at last give us a fanged vampire allergic to the cross.
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When he does go for a touch of supernatural menace, Milligan handles it well. For instance, when Graham’s wife allows the vampires to enter the conjugal bedroom, their arrival is so creepy that we don’t think to ask how all four of them squeezed through one tiny window. The fate of a maid, eyes popped by knitting needles, is satisfyingly grisly, though inflicted on one of the few likeable characters, played by Elizabeth Sentance with a quirky charm not unlike British thesp’ Brenda Blethyn.
The aforementioned prologue in the cemetery is a Gothic delight, with three female vampires, trailing coloured lace like some sinister Kate Bush cult, attacking a mourner in a graveyard. (The scene is further distinguished by Milligan’s wonky sound recording, which gives an unearthly warble to the vampires’ insinuating “Hello!”). Then there’s the vampire party in which, unusually, Milligan chooses eerie electronic music for accompaniment. It’s the sustained highlight of the film, and one of the best sequences he ever shot. With artfully blurred lensing and some accomplished low level lighting he creates a ritual haze of near-abstraction, redolent of underground/experimental films such as Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Less successful is Graham Ford’s off-camera demise, nibbled to death by vampire harpies while unconscious. It’s something of a let-down that we don’t see this stolid, handsome, but oh-so-boring hunk struggling for his life in a welter of gore.
The pacing, too, is virtually non-existent. For instance, after the prologue we’re thrust into three consecutive dialogue scenes; long rambling discourses between Graham Ford and the Reverend, Susan Ford and her fiancé, and Candace Ford and her maid. This prolixity, however, is par for the course with Milligan. If you can’t dig the ceaseless prattle of his sniping, carping, endlessly debating characters, you’re never going to ‘get’ his films!
The Compton Cinema, Soho, owned and run by Milligan producer Leslie Elliot in the late 1960s.
Elizabeth: “Go to America? Never! What is America? What is it made of? Pimps, prostitutes, religious fanatics? Thrown out of England but a few short centuries ago. They’re the scum of the Earth.”
This scabrous attack on the USA comes during a ‘vampire summit meeting’ held by the Reverend Ford, in which he suggests that the assembled bloodsuckers should emigrate West. It is apparently word-for-word what Curtis Elliot, the bullying father of The Body Beneath’s producer Leslie Elliot, said during a row which brought to a violent end Milligan’s association with Elliot’s Cinemedia company. (How did the argument begin? Rumour has it that Elliot Snr. thought an offhand remark of Milligan’s was anti-Semitic; Leslie Elliot, however, believes his father deliberately took umbrage at an innocent comment.)
Afterwards, Milligan managed to eke out his finances for another three films shot in London (Bloodthirsty Butchers; The Man With Two Heads; Curse of the Full Moon) before returning to New York. The Body Beneath was never released in the UK, but it went on to play various 42nd Street dives throughout the 1970s, on a double bill with Milligan’s first film shot in 35mm, Guru the Mad Monk (1970).
Sadly, life didn’t get any easier for Andy back in New York. Despite or maybe because of his abrasive, combative manner he found himself regularly screwed over by producers and distributors.
In many ways his sojourn in England was a highpoint of his career; he found himself wanted, in the homeland of the Gothic horror tale, making movies for a producer who admired him. Had he not so catastrophically fallen out with the man holding the purse-strings, who knows where his English adventure might have taken him?
The Body Beneath enjoyed one of the more startling renaissances in recent years when it was included as an extra on the BFI’s Blu-Ray release of Milligan’s Nightbirds.
Stephen Thrower, MOVIES and MANIA
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