(Note: this review pertains to the UK Region 2 release.)
York underground filmmaker and avante-garde theatre director Andy Milligan is
perhaps best known for his sleazy exploitation movies that ran in 42nd
St theatres for years throughout the 1970s. Memorable titles include The
Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972) and The Ghastly Ones
(1968), the latter banned in the UK during the 1980s as a “video nasty.” A
meeting in 1968 in New York with Leslie Elliot, a British distributor, lead to
several of his films being distributed in the UK. Even better for Milligan was
the opportunity to shoot five new films under Elliot's production arm Cinemedia
Films. Finding himself a flat in Soho and becoming acquainted with the British
by hanging out with male prostitutes on Piccadilly Circus, Milligan developed a
study of poverty, sexual frankness and sadomasochism that would have caused
quite a stir at the British Board of Film Censors, had the film ever been
released. After shooting Nightbirds and it's companion piece, the
vampire horror The Body Beneath, Milligan had an irreparable falling out
with Leslie Elliot's father and business partner Curtis Elliot, and was forced
to sever ties with the family before the films could be distributed. He was
allowed to keep the films, and somehow managed to raise the money to shoot a
further three films here before returning to New York, where he had varying
success in getting the films seen. Nightbirds received a limited
screening before disappearing into obscurity.
the horror films he is better known for, Nightbirds is a small
character-driven piece following Dink (Berwick Kaler), a young man recently
made homeless in swinging London. He meets Dee (Julie Shaw), an enigmatic,
sexually playful blonde who invites him to move into her tawdry attic bedsit.
They become obsessed with each other to the point where they begin to fear
facing the outside world, preferring the insular, psychologically troubling
world they have built for themselves. Dee seems reluctant to share anything
about her own past, preferring instead to make Dink do the talking. She flirts
with the landlord and slowly cuts Dink off from the only friends he has left.
The relationship is difficult at best, and emotionally abusive at worst. Milligan
has often been accused of being a misogynist, and his depiction of the female
character being as rotten as her flat could feed in to that. The film is more
nuanced than that however, and as her motivations as slowly revealed, the
audience is left to make up their own minds.
Kaler went on to star in a further four Milligan films before carving an
eclectic career for himself in British film and television, and is now the
creative force behind the annual York pantomime. Julie Shaw first appeared in
Pete Walker's The Big Switch aka Strip Poker (1968), and after
her starring role here virtually disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to her
following Nightbirds, which is a pity as she found an interesting,
emotionally detached performance in what must have been a rushed, occasionally
Milligan has an undeserved reputation as one of the worst film directors since
Ed Wood. One hopes that the release of Nightbirds will help to restore
him to a more favourable level of respectability. It is an interesting and well
made film, pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in the late 1960s,
particularly in regards to depictions of and discussions about sex. It compares
well with similar films from that period, some of which are also available on
the Flipside label, such as Private Road (1971) or Duffer (1971).
It also compares favourably to Andy Warhol's Trash (1970) or Flesh
(1968), films which also put people on the fringes of society in the full glare
of the camera.
a bonus feature here, alongside trailers, an excellent booklet and a commentary
track from Berwick Kaler (the first Flipside release to feature a commentary
incidentally), Milligan's other completed Cinemedia film has been restored and
included; The Body Beneath. This film was more familiar territory for
the director. Vampires, ghouls, a hunchbacked assistant (played by Berwick
Kaler) and occasional graphic gore are thrown together in a fairly nonsensical,
almost slapdash effort, in an attempt to create something which is halfway
between a late Hammer horror and a dreary daytime soap opera. Unlike Nightbirds,
The Body Beneath merely reinforces Milligan's Ed Wood comparisons,
although it does have moments of interest, particularly a grand meeting between
vampires which turns into a tirade of anti-American abuse.
again the BFI are to be congratulated for putting a package like this together.
With the assistance of award-winning director Nicolas Winding-Refn (Drive,
2011), who had the only surviving film materials, the BFI have proven that film
matters, no matter how obscure. Cinema Retro eagerly await the Flipside
releases for 2013.