After watching the films of Andy Milligan it comes as no surprise that the sleaze director was heavily into the S&M scene. What I suspect really floated Milligan’s boat wasn’t so much the physical aspect of S&M (although I’m sure he enjoyed all that as well, judging by the physically cruel streak in his films) but rather the verbal abuse. He was an auteur of arguments, and his movies are riddled with scenes of people yelling at, belittling and generally dressing down each other.
What’s surprising is that so much of the anger and bile in these arguments are kind of... poetic. While Milligan’s films were ugly and cheap (he shot them on 16mm and often in tight close-up to hide the fact that he had no budget), the scripts - while dripping with hate - are well-written. Milligan brings the sensibilities of a playwright to movies about torture and horror because he was a playwright in the then-new Off Broadway scene in New York. And he brought some of the actors he met on the stage into his no-budget schlockers, which adds something close to actual performances to these grindhouse productions. At the very least his actors can actually say their lines correctly, something that his competitors’ films couldn’t always boast.
The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! is nowhere near as good as its title, and it’s nowhere near as sleazy, gory or filthy as some of Milligan’s other movies. I saw it on TV as a kid and was shocked to discover on a recent rewatch* that not much had been edited out of the movie. I had always assumed the film had been cut to ribbons for broadcast, but the reality is that not much happens in the movie - except for some really repulsive true-life mutilation of a mouse.
Most of Milligan’s films were shot in Staten Island (at his own home), but Rats is one of a handful that was shot in England. I’m not sure how you would tell the difference; there are almost no exterior shots, and most of those are in a generic backyard (there is one amazing street scene where we see cars reflected in windows of shops - this is a movie set in the late 1800s).
The majority of the movie takes place inside Mooney Manor, a drab and ugly and underlit place. The Mooney clan is pretty much a bunch of bickering assholes; Monica is the unbearably bitchy daughter while Phoebe is the eldest sister who is holding the house together but who has a taboo secret. They have a retarded younger brother who is chained in a room; when we first meet him he has escaped and local youths are beating him and setting him on fire, later Monica drips hot candle wax on him. He doesn’t get treated well in general. There's another brother, but he doesn't argue so much, so Milligan doesn't care about him.
Papa Mooney is sick and frail, and given to ‘attacks’ for which he must be dosed using a conspicuously modern hypodermic needle. He has sent away youngest daughter Diana to medical school, so that she can continue Papa’s experiments that keep him alive. But she has returned home married to some doofus - which is a no-no for the Mooney family, due to their curse.
The title should tell you what the curse is, and their ‘Mooney’ appellation sure ain’t subtle. But if you’re expecting some kind of werewolf extravaganza, I have bad news for you: nothing happens until the final five minutes. Yet it’s still somehow great! The film has people standing around yelling at each other for most of the running time, but it all works. There’s a Dark Shadows gothic soap vibe to it all (if the people behind Dark Shadows hated all the characters, and all of humanity in general), and the unexpectedly strong writing carries us through.
In between bitter bickerings there are trips to the store to buy rats. The movie originally didn’t have any rats, but with the success of rat movies Ben and Willard, it was decided to drop some in there (two of the rats in the movie are even named Ben and Willard). These scenes were shot back in New York, apparently in a supply closet - rags and sheets hang on the walls, not even covering up very modern cardboard boxed filled with breakfast cereal. The rats have absolutely nothing to do with the story, and the werewolves - our actors wearing truly primitive Lon Chaney Jr get-ups - show up right at the end to growl and hunch about for a moment. It’s the ultimate no-budget finale for a movie that supposedly cost $10,000 - none of which is on screen.
Hope Stansbury plays sadistic bitch Monica, and she was one of Milligan’s muses. She was also an important figure in the early days of the transgender movement; while Stansbury was a genetic woman, her flamboyant style was an inspiration to trans people in New York City. Candy Darling, the male-to-female transsexual who was part of the core of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, lived with Hope for a few months, studying her. Candy’s original drag name was Hope Slattery, taken from Stansbury.
Stansbury is magnetically evil in the film, a complete domina. Milligan’s camera isn’t capable of much love, but what little it has it gives to her; the director himself was very, very gay, but you can tell that Stansbury’s nastiness gave the abuse-lover a raging boner.
It takes a certain kind of person to appreciate a movie like The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!. But that kind of person is richly rewarded with a bizarre, angry and ugly film that has the energy of a live production. A live production of shrieking hate.
* courtesy of Lars Nilsen and his AGFA Deep Tracks series at the Alamo Drafthouse. Keep up with future Deep Track screenings by joining the Alamo Cinephile Facebook group.