‘Nightbirds’ – DVD review

Nightbirds (BFI Flipside)
DVD/Blu-ray
Released 28th May 2012

Remarkably, the BFI’s Flipside label and Nicolas Winding Refn – fêted director of Bronson (2008), Valhalla Rising (2009) and Drive (2011) – have joined forces to release Nightbirds (1970)”“ the legendary ”˜lost’ film by the little known yet notorious, ultra low budget New York underground filmmaker Andy Milligan (1929-1991) ”“ to DVD and Blu-ray.

Previously seen by no more than a handful of people in a print lacking at least five minutes’ worth of footage, the film was shot on location in the Spitalfields area of East London in 1968 and was never given a noteworthy release anywhere across the globe.

Newly mastered from the original 16mm camera element under Nicolas Winding Refn’s supervision, Nightbirds is finally being released on 28 May in a Dual Format Edition on the BFI’s justly celebrated Flipside label. This release also contains Milligan’s British horror feature The Body Beneath (1970), original trailers, an audio commentary and an extensive illustrated booklet with newly-commissioned essays by filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough and film critics StephenThrower and Tim Lucas.

While living rough on the streets of London’s late 1960s East End, a naïve young man, nicknamed Dink (a Milligan regular player, Berwick Kaler ”“ Coronation Street, Boon, Red Riding), meets the attractive and peculiar Dee (Julie Shaw ”“ the ”˜Gateways Club’ scene in The Killing of Sister George and Peter Walker’s 1968 crime picture The Big Switch). Seemingly anxious about Dink’s welfare, she invites him to stay with her in her dingy rooftop flat at the top of 75 Commercial Street, E1. The two soon develop a sadomasochistic bizarre relationship that fluctuates, often without forewarning, between sexual familiarity, furious envy and hatred. As Dee’s compassion gives way to viciousness, the pair become obsessed by gloom and their relationship escalates out of control.

A riot of sadomasochism, misanthropy and possibly outright misogyny (Dee is not only a cruel, heartless psychopath, who uses ”˜love’ to enslave and destroy her male prey, she is diseased too), Milligan’s cheap, black and white picture resembles a curiously compelling, immaturely written and executed version of films such as The Servant, The Collector or Performance. The mysterious Julie Shaw gives a committed performance as the monstrous Dee, while Berwick Kaler contributes a fragile abnormality to the proceedings. The downbeat ending, the implication that the cycle will continue and the utterly bleak, nightmarish 1960s ambience of Spitalfields, backs up Dee’s vampire-like statement; “Let’s make this our last trip in daylight, the world’s so ugly by day.”

Actual incestuous vampires populate Milligan’s colour pulp-gothic-horror film on a minuscule budget, The Body Beneath, included as an extra on this disc. Totally removed from the psychodrama ambience of Nightbirds, The Body Beneath, also shot in England (London’s Highgate Cemetery features, as does Sarum Chase on the edge of Hampstead Heath, a regular cruising location for the director) during the late 60’s, is more a full-on exploitation picture.

An evil vicar, Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford (a superb Gavin Reed), together with his hunchback simpleton sidekick Spool (Berwick Kaler, again, but on this occasion terrible) and a coven of weird female vampires, seeks out members of the Ford dynasty to perpetuate his existence through intravenous blood transfusions. Jackie Skarvellis, a member of the nude cast of the London stage show Oh! Calcutta!, excels as potential victim Susan Ford, but the film belongs to Reed, Milligan’s verbose surrogate Dracula. Probably due to budgetary considerations, Milligan eschews the usual movie vampire imagery ”“ the undead can walk in daylight (thanks to special injections), garlic is conspicuous by its absence, crucifixes obviously have no effect, they have no fangs, use chloroform, and spend more time arguing with their victims rather than drinking their blood. Stock library music plays on, swelling and fading no matter what is transpiring on screen as the characters rattle off reams of Milligan’s preposterous exposition, in a similar fashion to B-movie director Ed Wood (this DVD thankfully offers an optional dialogue-only soundtrack presentations for both Nightbirds and The Body Beneath), the camera is audible and the editing is distinctly peculiar, yet the film contains a hallucinatory vampire feast sequence which withstands comparisons with Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.

Milligan devotees have long considered Nightbirds to have vanished, and the preparation involved in this release (as related in the extensive Nightbirds booklet) has been subject to a number of problems and adventures involving tracking down rare and unique film materials. Fascinated by Milligan’s work since he was young, Nicolas Winding Refn has spent years buying up any Milligan-related items on eBay. When he found that Milligan’s friend and biographer Jimmy McDonough (The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, 2001) was selling his collection of the director’s own film prints he bought the lot for $25,000 and, as a long-time fan of BFI Flipside titles, approached the BFI to suggest that Nightbirds and The Body Beneath be included on the label. With Milligan’s own print materials missing some scenes, the BFI found other elements from which to assemble the most complete and authentic presentations possible.

Whether or not you will agree with Nicolas Winding Refn’s assertion in the notes, that Milligan “was sort of a Douglas Sirk figure”, is definitely open to question. It is more likely that you will have never seen films quite like these before and that Refn’s following statement will carry some weight: “”¦when you watch an Andy Milligan movie you’re in no doubt whose film you’re watching. It’s a special quality to have a unique personal style.”

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