Until relatively recently Nightbirds was thought to be a lost movie from cult director Andy Milligan, who’s best known (although he’s not known that much, as his cult is pretty small) for slightly bizarre horror flicks. However at least one print remained, which Drive director and Milligan aficionado Nicolas Winding Refn managed to get hold of. He then approached the BFI about giving Nightbirds the first proper release it’s ever had, as it hardly even saw the inside of a cinema when it was first made.
This proved trickier than you might expect, as Refn’s solitary print was missing several key scenes, which had literally been cut out of it to make the six-minute trailer. However working with a company that had a copy of that trailer, they’ve managed to put the movie back together and create this new Blu-ray and DVD release. The real question though, is whether it was all worth it?
On one level, yes it was, as it would be sad to completely lose a work by such an idiosyncratic director, and also one that’s different to much of the rest of his work. That said, while it’s hopefully now been preserved for all time, I doubt it’s ever going to find much of an audience.
Although Milligan was an American, in the late 60s and early 70s he relocated to Britain and made five films here. This is one of them and is essentially a chamber piece that has the slight feel of a film played (Milligan had a background in underground New York theatre).
Dee (Julie Shaw) comes across young homeless man Dink when she finds him vomiting on the dingy London streets and invites him back to her falling-to-bits flat. While Dink is almost child-like and a virgin, he’s soon drawn into an intense affair with Dee, which becomes increasingly extreme, cycling between deep passion, extreme jealousy and Dee’s controlling behaviour. Dink’s life increasingly becomes about his new lover, but as time passes she shows signs of being oddly detached.
A curious film and an antidote to the usual image of London being a hip, swinging place in the late 60s, Milligan’s film is interesting without being all that absorbing. Berwick Kaler as Dink is very good in his first screen role (he went on to appear in the likes of Coronation Street and now writes and plays the dame in York’s panto), but Julie Shaw rather undermines things with a somewhat weak performance. It’s particularly problematic as the changes in her mood and the reasons for her cruelty are key to the film and Shaw doesn’t really do much with it. Nightbirds sexual frankness is interesting though, working as a bit of an antidote to the free love mantra of the time.
It’s kinda interesting and while Milligan’s OTT tendencies are kept in check here more than they are in most of his other films, you can feel his presence. That’s certainly true of the film’s slight edge of misogyny, something that Milligan’s been accused of in many of his films. The director was gay but not particularly open about it. It has to make you wonder whether this is somehow allied to his attitude to women. With homosexuality still a social taboo at the time and a lot of self-loathing by gay people going on, it wasn’t uncommon for gay men to almost blame women in a way that’s somewhere between misplaced anger and transference, and that may be happening here.
While not sold as such, this is essentially a double-feature release, as it also includes another of the director’s British films, The Body Beneath. It’s one of his rather camp horror efforts and fans will be pleased to hear it includes the slight sense of incoherence, oddly out of time setting and bad costumes he’s known for. A vicar arrives in a British village from Canada to reopen an old church. However he’s secretly a vampire, who has three ghoulish women (who literally look like their make-up is painted-on food dye) and a hunchback (played by Kaler) in tow.
One of the most accessible of Milligan’s efforts, it fun while being utterly bizarre and having a plot that goes all over the place. Like many of the director’s film, there’s the constant sense that he knows his backers are looking for enough sex and violence to make it commercial for an exploitation audience (with many of these scenes seeming oddly arbitrary), while he’s having fun inbetween. Strange, garish and definitely an acquired taste, it’s definitely something different and one for the most cultish of horror fans.
With both movies, the films look as good as could be expected, especially as neither has exactly been preserved well in the last 40 years. Neither has been given an overly aggressive cleaning, so that the HD master is quite grainy and the audio is rather muddy at times. It’s as it should be though, giving us the best version we can have without giving it a false cleanliness it never even had when Milligan first made it. He didn’t have the patience (or budget) for a lot of post-production finesse, resulting in some rough editing and audio jumps that are an almost integral part of the film.
Overall Verdict: An interesting release for those interested in Milligan, the swinging 60s and the most cultish of horror, but although both films are kind of interesting, they’re easier to appreciate than like and will only ever have a very limited following.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac