FOLLOW/LIKE US!
User login

Nightbirds

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1968
Studio: 
BFI
Genre: 
Cult
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
All
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Andy Milligan
Cast: 
Berwick Kaler
Julie Shaw
Bill Clancy
Susan Joyce
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4
Video: 
Click to Play

Since his untimely death from AIDS in 1991, the rough-hewn, make-do-and-mend exploitation films of Andy Milligan have acquired a select cult status  … in the truest sense of the word: for while the term ‘cult’ has become a genre label that these days gets frequently misapplied to anything which exists even vaguely beyond the bounds of the Hollywood mainstream, it’s a term that is surely unavoidable in consideration of a body of work of which approximately half the content  is now lost and probably junked, and most of the rest wears its amateurishness and alienating unwatchability like an angry badge of pride awarded for sheer tenacity in the face of the hopeless conditions under which its bizarre films were so often made. A closet homosexual all his life, with a difficult upbringing involving physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his domineering and possessive alcoholic mother, Milligan first emerged from the experimental off-off-Broadway theatrical scene of the 1950s, writing, producing and staging his own often demented S&M-inflected work and organising productions of plays by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet for the famous Greenwich Village coffeehouse-cum-theatre venue, the Caffe Cino. When he moved into low budget filmmaking after the purchase of a second-hand 16mm Auricon news-reel camera, his promising early work quickly came to the attention of veteran nudie distributor William Mishkin, who, along with JER, provided him with the minimal finances necessary in order to scrape his dysfunctional scatter-gun visions of family horror, pain, repression and punishment onto the screens of New York’s 42nd Street dives for years to come.

While all too easy to dismiss for their technical crudeness, artistic incompetence and the unpolished, outré melodramatics of the non-actor amateur casts so often unceremoniously thrust in front of Milligan’s shaky hand-held camera, any following these works now possess springs mainly from the hard-to-like but indefatigable personality of their creator, and the obvious relevance they now have regarding what has since become known of his harsh upbringing and unhealthy personal proclivities, despite his attempts to veil these obsessions with often lurid period Gothic horror content and tropes partly inspired by the campily flamboyant work of 1930s British horror actor Todd Slaughter. From his Victorian Staten Island Mansion home, Milligan created cheap, quickly made, gory exploitation schlock which took the traditional subject matter and settings of the classics, more usually  dealt with at that time by credible outfits such as Hammer Productions, but infused its dashed-off stories of predatory witches, lurching hunchbacks and scheming vampires with the grindhouse spirit of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the sleazy misogyny of the ‘roughie’ sexploitation sub-genre and the New York art film sensibilities of Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, et al. Yet these works are irrepressibly the design and vision of one man - and not just because Milligan literally did everything himself, from the writing, producing and directing, to operating the camera and editing the film; he even involved himself in designing and making the casts’ costumes (which he did under the pseudonym Raffiné – originally the name of his New York clothes shop, opened on his first trip to New York after leaving the Navy).

There’s a ceaseless, restless, bloody-minded energy and a knowing intelligence at work in most of the existent Milligan filmography, no matter how shoddy or initially off-putting the results of his endeavours. This was a man with an uncompromising acrid vision of humanity who was also cursed with sensitivity regarding the torture it is prone to inflict upon its outcasts, a man who was seemingly determined to keep making films no matter what financial adversity barred his way. The poor sound, odd framings, demonstrative and over-wordy performances and blaring library music cues all become part of a house style almost defiantly maintained through the majority of his forty-odd (very odd) films. Stephen King once summed up Milligan’s film “The Ghastly Ones” as ‘the work of morons with cameras’; Joe Dante described the same film as looking like ‘ a home movie from Bedlam’. That particular work is apparently still banned in England.

One of the most interesting periods in Milligan’s career came about after his New York producer at the time, William Mishkin, sold  the UK distribution rights to a selection of Milligan’s New York Grindhouse films to Leslie Elliot – then the managing director of Britain’s Compton Films (originally run by British exploitation impresarios Tony Tensor and Michael Klinger, until Elliot bought them both out in 1967), all of which subsequently toured the Soho cinema club circuit and even picked up screenings on the provincial cinema screens of cities right the way across the country! Elliot then struck a deal with Milligan which resulted in the Staten Island resident coming over to London to shoot a total of five films in the UK over a period of eighteen months - Elliot’s reasoning being that Milligan could knock out a perfectly ‘playable’ little movie with very little investment needed on his part. Most of the films which resulted from this unusual collaboration between the twin worlds of low budget British exploitation and New York Grindhouse sleaze inhabited an unusual hinterland which applied a slapdash New York art school Warhol-meets-John-Waters camp eccentricity to the traditional period British gothic horror film, tackling subjects such as family curses, werewolves, Sweeny Todd and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde across consecutive films.

This duel disc release from the BFI includes the first two films Milligan shot after his arrival in London. The second is a modern day Gothic vampire tale, released several times before in the US but never with such a superb-looking HD transfer as here. The idea of Milligan’s work being lavished with the amount of care and respectful attention as is shown on this Blu-ray release (with its top notch HD transfers and exhaustive booklet of essays) is almost amusing, but the novelty of the excellence of the treatment afforded a film usually confined to VHS standard DVD-R copies supplied by specialist outlets is eclipsed by the inclusion of the obscure work which headlines this latest in the BFI’s Flipside strand: “The Nightbirds” had been seen by virtually no one since it was originally shot in twelve days on location in London’s East End in 1968, and was once considered one of Milligan’s many lost films. Its release here, in  hugely detailed, grain-threaded high definition glory, is all thanks to filmmaker and Milligan fanatic Nicolas Winding Refn (director of recent indie noir “Drive”) who recently bought all of the Milligan film materials that the filmmaker’s biographer Jimmy McDonough was selling on eBay, for a cool $25.000. The collection included the only surviving 35mm blow-up print of “The Nightbirds”, missing several scenes which the BFI have sourced from a 16mm print owned by Something Weird Video, with both elements being transferred to High Definition to create a complete, definitive version for this release.

BFI’s release is an ideal primer for those new to Milligan’s strange world, although “The Nightbirds” turns out to be a long way removed from the crazy, pulpy, over-chatty style of most of his surviving previously released works. Instead, this raw, black & white 16mm piece is shot in a manner that invokes the scratchy, realist 1960s British-made kitchen sink dramas from earlier in the decade, while utilising a small cast of inexperienced local actors. Milligan’s usually frenetic camerawork is here replaced with a much calmer shooting style involving more traditional editing and often artful, unusually framed compositions. This intimate, starkly rendered tale of a lonely repressed male loser and a mysterious female manipulator, co-habiting in a shabby attic flat after she rescues him from homelessness, was shot in and around the evocative, litter-strewn, rain-lashed streets of a crumbling Spitalfields at the tail end of the ‘60s, using Milligan’s trusty Auricon hand-held camera. Consequently, the film feels quintessentially British somehow - recalling the same kind of deadbeat world so frequently immortalised in the British sit-coms of the era  and with characters who might well have felt equally at home in the disappointed worlds of, say, “Hancock” or “Steptoe & Son”. Its supporting cast of lowlife characters made up of snide, over-inquisitive landlords; simpering sex-mad middle-aged ladies; and bitchy, slumming it Carnaby Street dolly birds, are all cramped uncomfortably into a dingy world of peeling plaster and broken floorboards, although presented in a style that foreshadows the alienating atmospheres of “Eraserhead” more than it echoes the feel of, say, “Room at the Top”. Also, Milligan’s self-confessed misogyny emerges in the characterisation of what turns out to be one of the most callous and vindictive female creations of 1960s cinema, brought to life with halting off-beat relish in the charmingly awkward performance of the inscrutable Julie Shaw. But despite the period-evoking East End setting and real-life intimate surroundings shot in wobbly guerrilla style, this British-made film also seems loaded with painful biographical importance when one examines it in the context of Milligan’s strained relationships with his mismatched parents during his difficult early childhood.

The opening shots show the nineteen-year old Berwick Kaler (captured here before his acting career had really truly started; he later became better known for a stint in “Coronation Street” and for popular TV drama such as “Auf Wiedersehen Pet”) as a forlorn character in ripped shirt and holey jumper, stumbling through, and vomiting in dingy corners of some grey East End backstreets, and being rescued by the self-styled ‘Florence Nightingale of the streets; Dee-Dee the “do-good girl!”’ This blonde, sleek-looking seductress carts the boy – who calls himself ‘Dinky’ -  back to her crumbling flat on Commercial Street, up seemingly unending flights of dark backstairs to the grim, undecorated top-floor attic room she apparently rents from scrawny, Irish landlord, Ginger (Bill Clancy). Milligan then presents lengthy dialogue scenes, unusually artistically staged in the film’s monochrome light with effective, professional looking slanted camera angles (although the usual unwanted ambient noises in the background, creaking floorboards and audible camera noises are always present). We come to realise here, though, that Dinky is something of a lost creature (‘I’m looking for a job but I’m not very good at it,’ he whimpers when Dee asks how he ended up sleeping rough on the streets), a callow, inexperienced youth who is simply looking for a tender mother figure and, although he claims to have left home of his own accord, is clearly bereft without someone to offer him maternal care (a word association game later reveals it is the death of his mother which has in all likelihood resulted in his being cast out homeless into the streets to unsuccessfully fend for himself). Dee at first seems a sympathetic female presence who offers a chance for Dinky to advance his arrested  emotional growth and development with his first fully mature relationship with a woman, as well as a sorely needed education in sex (despite his claims to have ‘had lots of girls’, Dee soon picks up on the fact of his virginity). But it becomes apparent that Dee is not quite as altruistic as she at first appears and, at the very least, has issues of her own. There seems to be an odd exploitative relationship going on between herself and Ginger (although it is at first unclear just who is exploiting whom) and Dee begins to use sex as a manipulative tool in her relationship with the almost child-like Dinky, goading him into overwrought declarations of devotion by adopting a role that combines and alternates mother and seductress (‘mother will kiss it and make it well,’ she purrs after Dinky scolds himself on the stove) then withdrawing affection in a manner that leaves the poor sop not knowing whether he’s coming or going emotionally. Dinky’s clingy personality and passive behaviour in relationships is exemplified by his only other past dealings with a female – the middle-aged ex ‘busker’ (East End slang for prostitute) Mabel (Susan Joyce), a friend who smothers him in creepy, infantilising praise and affection when he and Dee visit her in her home, while clearly enjoying a repressed sexual buzz from his attentions (‘Ain’t he pretty? … I’d like to lie on my bed and look at you all day!’). Mabel introduces a note of pantomime comic grotesque to the film with her stained teeth and exaggerated performance manner; she’s like a warped Mollie Sugden sitcom character suddenly imported into a previously serious, taut Kitchen Sink drama.

A misogynist’s view of female relationships with men as being exclusively characterised only by shades of sexual and emotional exploitation is omnipresent in the screenplay, but Dee’s overriding need to dominate and control and eventually maim and destroy her helpless conquests, both emotionally and physically, can’t help but conjure up the spectre of Milligan’s childhood and the unhappy marriage between his taciturn and (as he characterised it) weak, ineffectual father and his jealous and emotionally and physically abusive mother. Dinky’s fate is paralleled with that of an injured pigeon he rescues from Dee’s attic skylight and attempts to nurse back to health: what happens to it when Dee gets hold of the stricken creature doesn’t bode well for Dinky’s welfare in her company as Dee sets about first poisoning his relationship with Mabel and then dealing with even the most casual interactions between Dinky and other women with uncompromising physical and verbal violence. Milligan introduces a leitmotif which associates Dee with the idea of her being a witch or a vampire; early on by presenting strange but suggestive shots of her descending in silhouette form the stairway leading from the roof of the flats, backlit by the open doorway and descending in a processional, somnolent manner redolent of Gothic horror movies. The association becomes even more forthright later in the film when Dinky’s dependency becomes so total that he can’t leave the attic without her, and yet she expresses reluctance to leave their room by day, vowing - as they set out to go steal a blanket - that this will be their last trip in daylight. Their spartan, shabby room becomes almost literally an island to them: at one point they even steal from the room underneath theirs by removing some floorboards and fishing for a purse left on a table below using a piece of string with a magnet attached to the end. Finally, Dee’s dislike of any kind of expression of independence or even satisfaction on Dinky’s part when it doesn’t derive from her controlling influence becomes apparent when she chides him for even so much as daring to smile in her presence: ‘I feel like a vampire in sunlight when you smile. Don’t do it!’ Once her spell is cast and Dinky is completely under her thumb and dependent on her in every way for his emotional survival, the true reason for Dee having initiated the relationship is revealed, pitching the movie into becoming one of  the oddest, blackest portraits of fictional female maleficence ever put on screen.

Although presumably conceived and envisioned as a sexploitation film, the full frontal nudity is both fleeting and surprisingly sensitively shot with dreamily executed hand-held camera. In fact the style and tone of the film in general – realistic, downbeat and gloomy – bears little resemblance to much of Milligan’s work, and it could just be his most accessible work, as well as his most professionally respectable offering, despite the rough edges of the editing style, the twelve day shooting schedule  and the awkwardness of some of the cast’s line reading (Milligan probably didn’t have the time to attempt a second take if one of the actors stumbled over a line, so every fluff just gets left in). Kaler and Shaw’s performances may be raw and inexpert but they were both perfectly cast and complement each other in what is, for the most part, a two-hander -- with just the two of them responding to each other as Dinky tries desperately to create a secure haven for himself and Dee out of the crumbling, unappealing room they dwell in over the two weeks covered by the film; while Dee toys with the dishevelled, beaky nosed lad, using her combination of beguiling flirtatious behaviour and the motherly lure of an imitation domesticity. The perennial Milligan themes of dislike for traditional family relationships and a profound distrust of women are central to the film and are made more explicit towards the end when we learn of Dee’s dysfunctional family life and about one other ’victim’ of hers who at least got off slightly better than does Dinky.

Shot in grainy black & white 16mm, the BFI’s HD transfer of the film looks, frankly, astonishing: it doesn’t seem as though any significant digital noise reduction has been used here at all, resulting in an image which is both authentically grainy but also utterly pin-sharp in a way that seems almost magical considering this cheaply made work has been stuffed in someone’s attic, virtually unseen by anyone for over forty years. Critic Stephen Thrower joins actor Berwick Kaler to reflect on the little the actor can remember about his experiences on all five of Milligan’s British-made films for an accompanying audio commentary, although “The Nightbirds” is the only one of them he can remember in any significant detail. Nevertheless, there's just enough tantalising material eked out of the actor (who also talks about his subsequent career in general) by Thrower’s questioning to make this a fascinating listen for Milligan aficionados. There’s also a trailer included, full of amusing ‘60s hyperbole in which the film is touted as ‘the NOW movie of our time [… ] for the switched on generation’.   

But the most significant ‘extra’ to be included with the release is likely to become as big a draw as the main feature for those who will be purchasing this disc – namely, “The Body Beneath” (1969), Milligan’s second film shot with Leslie Elliot’s backing (which turned out to be the last, since their five picture arrangement was soon nullified by a falling out with Elliot’s difficult father, although Milligan somehow found money elsewhere in order to complete his other trio of British films). Now afforded a high definition transfer, this was a full-colour film shot on 16 mm, although the film materials are decidedly less well preserved than were those of “The Nightbirds”, with a bluish tint and extensive damage to some of the elements which the BFI were unable to restore; yet still this strange, micro-budget foray by the New York director, which takes him for the first time into the genre of the British Gothic horror film (although none of these films were ever seen in the UK, but were screened many times back on 42nd Street at a time when Hammer were still riding high with such material) is one of Milligan’s most memorable.

It’s far more representative of the florid but cheap Milligan aesthetic than was “The Nightbirds”: here, overly theatrical dialogue scenes that go on far too long are soaked in seemingly unrelated library music cues that sound like they’ve been culled from lush orchestral ‘50s Hollywood romantic movies; yet well-chosen locations and flashes of morbid wit add a peculiar charm in amongst the cheap gore set-pieces. The poster (reproduced in the BFI booklet that comes with the duel disc release) features the compelling tag line “filmed in the graveyards of England” and it’s true that much of the film’s watchability derives from Milligan’s judicious use of London’s Highgate Cemetery (shot at a time when it was still an overgrown and mouldering testament to the Victorian obsession with commemorating death) and a neo-Tudor mansion overlooking Hampstead Heath called Sarum Chase that Milligan somehow obtained access to film inside and around.

Here the location doubles as Carfax Abbey, home of the undead Reverend Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed). The film’s simple storyline has this dog-collared vampire with the clipped tones of an English country vicar rounding up a succession of unsuspecting female family members in order to extend the Ford bloodline, which has been degenerating for hundreds of years. Reverend Ford needs regular blood transfusions from those related to his clan to enable him to venture out in daylight long enough to lure young ‘60s dolly birds back to his abode, either to steal their blood or sire a whole new race of healthy vampire Fords. He’s accompanied by his peculiar mute young wife Alicia (an amusing performance by “The Nightbirds” technical director, Susan Heard) – who appears in a headscarf and shawl, sullen and silent, passively knitting at her husband’s side throughout the movie until called upon to kill, at which point she suddenly aggressively lashes out with said knitting implements! Highgate, it turns out, is home to centuries of Ford vampires, three of which accompany the Reverend on his missions around London, materialising in a succession of modern suburban locations to drug or hypnotise those needed to complete their master’s over-elaborate plan, while dressed in garishly coloured taffeta and sporting putrid green and blue face makeup. They look like the ghouls in Herk Harvey’s 1962 indie classic “Carnival of Souls”, and the same slightly awkward tone born of meagre resources which marked that film also predominates here.

The cast’s performance styles range across a broad spectrum, from the impeccably professional (Reed is excellent as the ruthless vicar vampire) to the raw but effective (Jacqueline Skarvellis is convincing as the young pregnant bride-to-be, Susan Ford, who unwittingly  falls into the Reverend’s clutches when she visits her long-lost relative with the aim of organising her coming wedding). Berwick Kaler’s hunchbacked slave Spool, meanwhile,  is at once the most ridiculous pantomime character in the movie (appropriate, given Kaler’s current career) and also the most sympathetic – another abused outsider: crippled by a bullying stepbrother, abandoned by his parents, and abused by his vampire overlords. The cheapness of the production is impossible to ignore, yet Milligan always places and uses his camera imaginatively, suggesting many of the film’s glaring technical difficulties could have been overcome with more time and resources. A hallucinogenic sequence shot by candlelight as generations of costumed Ford vampires assemble in the manor’s banqueting hall for a summit meeting is particularly effective. Yet very lengthy dialogue sequences (the Reverend even admits at one point ‘I talk too much!’) give the film as a whole the air of a threadbare stage play shot by an amateur cameraman. For those attuned to the Milligan sensibility though, this is all part of his work’s appeal, which is as unique as that of other semi-derided maverick filmmakers such as Jess Franco, for example. The man made films his own way; they were rough, sometimes laughable, but always distinctive and instantly recognisable as the work of a driven obsessive who would stop at nothing to get his warped vision to the screen,  even if only in the most rudimentary of forms.

The BFI release also features a theatrical trailer for “The Body Beneath” and both films can be viewed either with a fully mixed mono soundtrack or a dialogue only track, the latter giving both films even more of an austere art film vibe. The accompanying BFI booklet is a must, and makes an excellent primer for those new to Andy Milligan’s films. It features a series of extremely informative pieces, starting with a forward by the man who has made the BFI’s release possible thanks to his obsession with this obscure filmmaker, the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Next Andy’s biographer Jimmy McDonough provides an introduction which dwells on his personal memories of Milligan, which is then followed by a series of excellent articles by Stephen Thrower: these include a detailed overview of Milligan’s British period, followed by insightful reviews of both of the films included in this release (along with film credits for them). Lastly there is a lengthy and sympathetic overview of Milligan’s filmmaking career as a whole by Video Watchdog editor Tim Lucas, which really is required reading. The BFI have done everything humanly possible here to bring this often overlooked filmmaker in from the cold. It helps that these are possibly two of his better films, and their release as part of such a beautiful package will surely do much to bring Milligan’s work to a wider attention. Another very highly recommended release.

Read more form Black Gloves at Nothing But The Night!

0
Your rating: None