Monday, February 28, 2022

“I Hear Tell They’re Cannibals” - Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970) - Film #224

Let us continue our explanation of Andy Milligan's masterworks with a discussion of Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970). Like The Man with Two Heads (1972), Bloodthirsty Butchers is a renamed literary adaptation--in this case, an adaptation of the story of Sweeney Todd, demon barber of Fleet Street, a character that was originally introduced in a series of penny dreadfuls in 1846. Despite being based on an external source, Bloodthirsty Butchers is a prototypical Andy Milligan film, spiced up with gore, impressionistically uncontrolled camerawork, and scenes of intense, hateful bickering.

Despite the film's unassailable pedigree, some of your universe's critics remain unimpressed. For example, reviewer coventry writes, "The production is one gigantic mess, with an incoherent narrative structure, truly hideous photography, poor lighting, lousy acting and directing, laughable gore and zilch tension or atmosphere." Reviewer HandsomeBen writes, "This movie should be destroyed and never be seen again. It's THAT bad." And reviewer jbeaucha-1 writes, "Take my suggestion, and DO NOT see this movie unless you plan on falling asleep. TERRIBLE."

Read on for an unbiased look at one of Andy Milligan's many fine tales of terror...

The film opens with little preamble, as a barber named Sweeney Todd does a poor job shaving a young man who recently arrived in London from Dublin. Perhaps unwisely, the young man mentions that he has no relatives nearby, only his mother in Dublin, and he hasn’t even told his mother where he lives yet. Sweeney Todd slides the curtains closed, though the curtains block only a small fraction of the high shop windows. Then the bloodthirsty barber covers the man’s face with a hot towel, slices his throat, and uses a meat cleaver (possibly an unusual tool of the barber’s trade) to cut off the man’s hand so he can steal a valuable ring.

Nearby, a woman named Maggie Lovett takes meat pies out of the oven with the help of her assistant Johanna. They talk about their employee Tobias, who works in the basement and whom nobody likes. When Johanna leaves, Maggie engages in a conversation for several minutes with a customer about her bakery’s new policy of only selling full loaves, not half loaves. The entire sequence is scored with a pleasant instrumental tune that would be appropriate over scenes of children frolicking on a grassy field near two or three waterfalls.

In the next scene, Johanna helps Mr. Lovett, who is bedridden upstairs due to high blood pressure caused by an accident when he fell off a ladder, to get out of bed and then get back into bed. They discuss Johanna’s fiancé Jarvis, a seaman. Then the creepy Tobias enters and slices Mr. Lovett’s wrists, which is a medical treatment to relieve high blood pressure. 

Mysteriously, a customer enters the bakery complaining she found a hunk of black hair in one of the meat pies she bought earlier. Johanna gives the woman a refund. “Will you keep it or shall I?” the woman asks.

“What?” Johanna inquires.

“The hair, dear girl, the hair.”

Johanna keeps the hair to show Mrs. Lovett. Then a young blonde woman who can only be described as “brassy” enters the shop looking for Tobias, though Johanna tells her Tobias is indisposed. The next visitor to the shop, clearly one of the busiest in London, is Jarvis, whom Johanna invites into the back room for a bout of making out. “I’ve thought about you so much…the sea…that I couldn’t have you for myself,” she says while he strips her naked. They make love for a long time, all accompanied by the pleasant frolicking music.

Elsewhere, the filmmakers introduce new characters at a theatre, where the owner Mr. Fisk tries to keep his star singer (and mistress) Anna happy. She sizes him up coldly with classic Andy Milligan dialogue: “You ain’t got a heart. You got a tuppence where your heart should be.” After approximately twenty minutes of arguing, during which she sadistically forces him to tell her he adores her and then she spits into his mouth, she goes onstage, though we do not see her performance.

After the show, Sweeney Todd visits Anna backstage. She is having an affair with the barber as well as Mr. Fisk, and she is trying to get both men to leave their wives for her. They begin to make love, but they are interrupted by Mr. Fisk, gracing the audience with more spirited Milliganesque arguments. When the fight is broken up by a middle-aged drag queen named Corky, Fisk finally fires her: “You’ve been scheming and bleeding me dry for over a year! You ain’t much of a singer and you ain’t much of a lady!”

In the next scene, Sweeney Todd’s wife confronts him because she knows he’s having an affair, allowing for yet more spirited arguing. He says, “You drunken slut, you can’t stay sober long enough to keep this place clean. It looks like a pig sty. A pig wouldn’t live in it!”

When she spits on him, Sweeney punches her, knocking her unconscious, and then rather horrifically he rapes her—until the scene dissolves to Johanna and Jarvis naked in the back room of the bakery, accompanied by the frolicking music. “I love you,” he tells her.

“I love you first,” she says, somewhat confusingly.

Jarvis leaves to get a haircut. Johanna returns to the bakery, but she is blocked by Tobias, who tells her he saw her making love to Jarvis.

“Are you threatening me?” she asks.

“If the shoe fits, wear it,” Tobias replies, somewhat confusingly.

Meanwhile, Jarvis meets with a jeweler who wants to buy the expensive pearls he intends to give to Johanna as a gift, then walks jauntily through the streets of London, unaware he is being followed by Tobias.

Seconds later, Tobias is in Mr. Lovett’s room. He suddenly chops off Mr. Lovett’s hand, then hacks him to death and beheads him with a butcher’s cleaver. The shocking murder scene ends with one of Andy Milligan’s trademarks: the camera shakes and points away from the murder, as if too disturbed to film such a thing, ending with a shaky, disorienting shot before the cut to the next scene.

Next, Jarvis sits in Sweeney Todd’s barber chair, where Mr. Todd complains about his alcoholic wife and gives Jarvis some advice about marriage: “Remember, lad, women work in cycles. Three-day cycles. Now at the end of three days, when she’s very happy, you do something to upset her before she does. Women can’t stand happiness for more than three days at a time. It drives them wild. So you have to know when to upset things before they do. And then you forgive them, you screw them, you tell them you love them, and you watch out for the next three days.”

Jarvis shows Mr. Todd the expensive pearls. Coincidentally, Tobias arrives at the same time, and he knocks poor Jarvis out and then drags him away while Mr. Todd steals the expensive pearls.

The filmmakers then cut to a tray of meat pies at Mrs. Lovett’s bakery. Mrs. Lovett serves a customer named Mr. Busker, who pays extra for pies with “special parts,” indicating he knows about the whole operation with Mr. Todd and Tobias supplying victims for Mrs. Lovett’s cannibalistic meat pies. Mrs. Lovett blocks Johanna from going upstairs to see Mr. Lovett, indicating she was involved in the older man’s murder, and she tells Johanna that Mr. Lovett will be going on a trip soon. Amusingly, as she speaks about her husband’s absence, Mrs. Lovett chews on a sausage of dubious anatomical origin.

Elsewhere, Tobias schemes to get rid of his girlfriend Rosie by making her write a note to her mother. The two start making love—as in many Andy Milligan movies, their performance of the love act consists mostly of opening their mouths wide and chewing each others’ chins. In mid-clinch, Tobias slams a knife into Rosie’s abdomen hard enough for her internal organs to spew into his hands.

Time for another argument! This time, two random customers of Mrs. Lovett argue about the difficulty of picking up bakery items from the bakery when Tobias is around. This evolves into an argument between the husband and wife about gossiping. The wife continues gossiping as the husband tries to eat lunch—and then they discover a shocking grotesquerie: inside their meat pie is a sliced-off woman’s breast and nipple! Apparently, the gossip and her husband are not willing customers of Mrs. Lovett’s cannibal business.

After some more bickering between Sweeney Todd and his singer mistress, Sweeney strangles her to death in a matter of milliseconds with a thin scarf. He also stabs her and, in one of the film’s goriest scenes, pulls some of her guts out of her navel. Then the camera swings wildly around the room, disgusted at Mr. Milligan’s excesses.

As the film moves into its final act, Sweeney wakes up next to Mrs. Lovett and proposes they kill his wife the same way they killed her husband. However, they think the police might be suspicious of two murders with the same m.o. so they develop a complex plan to lure Sweeney’s wife to the roof of their building and push her off. Then they talk about the riskiness of their so far successful business plan of killing random people and selling their meat in pies. “Two hundred fifty-eight people disappearing like that? You’re lucky never to have been caught,” Mrs. Lovett says.

“Lucky, hell! Careful.”

“Two hundred fifth-eight was worth twenty thousand.”

“Beggars, thieves, prostitutes. Scum of the earth. We did a good thing, getting rid of them. You notice they don’t hang around here anymore, don’t you?”

“No, we’ve been luck.” (Also, it must be added, they’re dead, so it’s unlikely they would continue to hang around there.) “And I’ve got a feeling it’s about to run out.” They plan to move to Australia, Canada, or America after killing Sweeney’s wife. They also reveal that Sweeney is keeping Jarvis alive in the cellar because there was no time to kill him.

The plot moves quickly when Sweeney’s wife confronts Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, forcing them to knock her out and take her to the cellar, where Tobias cuts her to pieces, and then starts eating her raw—an act that forces the camera to swing wildly again, revealing electrical equipment and a tangle of wires on the floor.

Meanwhile, the gossip and her husband who found the breast in their food meet up with Johanna at the local police station (or possibly a church; it’s hard to tell). They go to Sweeney Todd’s building to investigate the disappearance of Jarvis, only to find another customer of Mrs. Lovett’s screaming. The customer gives a long explanation of why she is looking for the police: “My sister’s little boy Johnny, he came screaming back to us terrified about 15 minutes ago. He said he’d been playing at Mrs. Lovett’s back yard. He was throwing a ball against the wall when it fell between the bars of the window. Well, the window was all boarded up and he reached to get the ball and the board gave way and he looked inside. He came screaming back, he was terrified. It was blood he seen. At first, we didn’t believe him. His story was so bizarre. We decided to take a look so the three of us went along there with him. He pointed to the board. I looked inside and there was Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett chopping up Becky!”

Back at the basement, Tobias fights with Sweeney, who stabs him with a knife. In one of Andy Milligan’s finest action sequences, a meat cleaver flies through the air, spinning, and buries itself in Sweeney’s forehead. 

At the same time, all the “good guys,” from the sole policeman to the gossip and her husband and the terrified storyteller, break into the basement, see what is happening, and beat up Mrs. Lovett. 

In the end, Johanna is reunited with Jarvis. A neighbor asks where they will live, so Jarvis replies somewhat awkwardly, “I’ve got a chance to go to America so we’re going to go there and live.”

“Won’t that be exciting?” the neighbor says. “It’s such a new country. But you be careful now. They’ve got Indians there. I hear tell they’re cannibals!”

Then the neighbor brings them a kidney pie and they all laugh heartily.

As one of the five films Andy Milligan shot in the United Kingdom, Bloodthirsty Butchers boasts good production values and, more importantly, actors with acceptable British accents. The realism of the performances--which are all quite good, though none of the performers can match Denis DeMarne's performance as Jekyll and Hyde in The Man with Two Heads--allows Mr. Milligan to concentrate on the gory details of his murders and dismemberments, not to mention the nasty arguments most pairs of characters get into. A sequel set in America, with Jarvis and Johanna moving to Staten Island, would have been an interesting follow-up to this film, or perhaps a film bearing the not-quite-sequel relationship that The Body Beneath (1970) and Blood (1973) demonstrate. In keeping with the perhaps imperfect title of this film (named Bloodthirsty Butchers but centering on the activities of a barber and a baker), the next film might have tackled the bloody antics of a candlestick-maker, a character that no doubt would have fit into Mr. Milligan's rogue's gallery quite comfortably. But such a film was not to be. One can have few regrets about this absence, however, as Bloodthirsty Butchers was made in the middle of the director's most fertile periods in terms of horror films--released the same year as Torture Dungeon; The Body Beneath; and Guru, the Mad Monk and only two years before The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! and The Man with Two Heads. Mr. Milligan's body of work would continue into the 1980s, and for that we must be eternally grateful.