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Nightbirds (1970) (DVD + Blu-ray)

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Genre: Horror / Actors: Berwick Kater, Julie Shaw / Theatrical Release Date: 1970 / DVD Release Date: 2012

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    Your dooyooMiles Miles

    1 Review
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      27.08.2012 10:02
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      Two very obscure exploitation films given a weirdly prestigious release

      This is a dual Blu-ray and DVD release from the BFI. It is about £12.

      In the world of exploitation, Andy Milligan is about as low as it gets. His micro-budgeted, incoherent and badly made grindhouse fodder has a microscopic cult following, but his films are some of the most difficult to sit through I've encountered. Only Al Adamson is as bad, and at least his films won't leave you with motion sickness.

      But the thing about Milligan is that he's the subject of an absolutely brilliant biography, The Ghastly One, by Jimmy McDonough. Milligan was a gay man into the hardcore S&M scene. He was a dress designer (he did the costumes for most of his films) and a pioneer of what became Off-Broadway theatre. He was also a seething, vile misanthrope who alienated almost everyone he ever worked with. He died of Aids in 1991, pretty much bankrupt, so never got to experience the kind of fan-favourite resurgence that other horror hacks like Franco or Naschy were blessed with in their twilight years. There really ought to be a biopic made, although I doubt anyone would have the guts.

      The biography is basically the only thing that sustains Milligan's cult (well, that and the fact that one of his films was a video nasty). Milligan made five films in London in 1969-1970, and it's two of these that are presented here (the disk contains The Body Beneath, another Milligan film, as an extra). It really is extremely weird seeing Milligan films released by the BFI. Their Flipside series is devoted to uncovering odd and obscure British films, but even the clunkiest previous releases had some merit. The films presented here are difficult to justify. While I'm glad to see Milligan's work released - I like seeing obscure old films released on Blu-ray, regardless of genre - you are most unlikely to want to watch either of them more than once.

      **Nightbirds**

      The headline release is the better of the two. A young homeless man, Ding, is picked up by a woman, Dee. She puts him up in her shabby flat and they become lovers. She gradually forces him into subservience, and there's a sense that things won't end terribly well.

      This isn't a very Milliganesque film, and it's not as terrible as his reputation might suggest. The camera doesn't wobble much, and the movie's blessed with some great East End locations (it was filmed around Spitalfields, but is too early for the Hawksmoor fetishism that you'd get nowadays). It's shot in grainy black and white that looks surprisingly good, and once in a while you get a decently framed shot.

      Tone-wise, it feels a bit like Deep End, also available from the BFI. Like that film, it's about a naïve young man in London becoming obsessed with a more experienced woman. The male lead, Berwick Kaler, gives a very similar performance as John Moulder-Brown in Deep End, as the callow youth obsessing over a girl. It is far more downbeat, though, even depressing. And I can't in all conscience say that it's actually any good.

      The main problem with it is the female lead, Julie Shaw. She has the most astonishingly clipped, stilted line delivery I've ever heard, and a fascinating collection of lisps and other speech impediments that render most of her dialogue impossible to take seriously. The dialogue is actually not bad, and a better cast could have brought out some real Pinteresque menace in it. But as soon as Dee opens her mouth, you know it's going to be a bad film.

      And it's a shame, because of all Milligan's films that I've seen, this is the most watchable by some distance. The music is sparse and restrained. It's made with a technical competence that is most unusual, and even the worst of the cast at least seem to be professional performers rather than people Milligan picked up in some dodgy bathhouse. There's plenty of nudity from both cast members (although Dee may be replaced by a body double for the full frontal stuff), and it presents cunnilingus as something hopelessly exotic and kinky; perhaps it was in those days. It certainly was for Milligan, a man not overly fond of vaginas. In fact the oral sex proves central to the film's tragic dénouement.

      The reason to keep coming back to Milligan's films is for the glimpses they offer into the man's mind. Milligan was far too personal and unprofessional a filmmaker not to allow his own thoughts to seep into the movies he made, usually in the unsubtle form of lengthy, ranting pieces of dialogue. There are no rants in Nightbirds, but there is an underlying misogyny. In spite of the ad campaign trying to play up the alleged countercultural status of the two characters ('the story of two young alives') the actual story itself is incredibly reactionary. Andy Milligan, when given funding for a crazy youth film in London, chose to make a film about how sex with women will kill you. That speaks volumes.

      **The Body Beneath**

      Far more typical of Milligan - and therefore so bad as to be almost unwatchable - this is an overcomplicated tale of vampires living in Highgate Cemetery. The chief vampire poses as a priest, and tracks down people who are related to his large vampire clan in order to try to strengthen the bloodline by... um... well, what they're actually aiming to do isn't 100% clear.

      In contrast to Nightbirds, this film is shot in occasionally gaudy colour, the camera wobbles around like anyone's business, and there are plenty of appalling actors on display wearing unusually flowery clothes. The restrained music of the first film has been replaced with constant melodramatic stock music, much of which is of terrible quality (it's not clear whether the poor sound quality comes from the film, or whether the music Milligan found was already terrible-sounding. At one point it certainly sounds like the incidental music jumps, as if the needle in the record skipped a groove).

      There are a few decent things in this - the mansion where it was filmed is good, although leads to some typically cramped Milligan interior shots. Highgate Cemetery is used as a location in a way that would never be allowed nowadays, and the mansion itself is right next to Hampstead Heath (Milligan was reportedly well acquainted with Hampstead Heath by night).

      The lead actor, playing the vampire priest, gives an absurdly camp performance, but at least he gives a performance. A lot of the cast seem to be non-professionals. The star of Nightbirds, Berwick Kaler, is in Body Beneath too, as a hunchbacked servant. There is almost always a hunchback in Milligan's films, usually in a weirdly tender but submissive relationship with his master. In this film it means a young man in a shabby anorak with a jumper stuffed up it, but at least he doesn't go overboard on 'the bells!' style mannerisms.

      The film's climax, rather than a lengthy sequence of horror and bloodletting, is actually a debate between various vampire factions about whether they should move to America, all shot through a camera lens smeared with Vaseline. I can't think of many other directors who would end a horror film like that. It does give us some blasts of unadulterated Milligan, though, as characters rant about how ghastly modern America is (how on earth they're supposed to know this given that they clearly spend all their time swanning around a north London cemetery isn't clear). A hefty gore payoff would likely have been beyond Milligan's abilities anyway - there's an eye-gouging that is unbelievably amateurish.

      But that's Milligan all over. He managed to churn out a surprising number of films, several of which reportedly did quite well in New York's sleazier exploitation cinemas. Sadly a large number of these appear to be lost to the world forever, so we should perhaps be grateful that these films even exist at all.

      The films don't look amazing in either format, which is probably inevitable due to their age and cheapness. Nightbirds is very grainy, and the grain is faithfully preserved rather than smoothed away, but it does make for an unusually cheap look. The Body Beneath has quite a lot of damage to the print (it was pieced together from two different sources) and the colours look odd. Still, these look good for what they are. As ever, the inclusion of a DVD and a Blu-ray in the same package is irritating and pointless.

      Extras-wise, there's a commentary on Nightbirds from Berwick Kaler, moderated by horror critic Steve Thrower. Kaler's a likeable enough guy, I guess. There are also trailers - the trailer for Nightbirds is six minutes long, which is ridiculous. There's also a booklet explaining how these films came to be in the BFI's hands. Thrower contributes again, trying to find nice things to say about each film. Milligan's biographer, Jimmy McDonagh, also contributes.

      For all that his films are difficult to sit through, it's great that Andy Milligan existed. The films inevitably disappoint, and it still seems a very odd choice for the BFI to release, but I'm glad they did. I'll certainly never watch either of these films a second time, though.

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