B&W, 1970, 78m.
Directed by Andy Milligan
Starring Berwick Kaler, Julie Shaw, Susan Heard, Felicity Sentance
BFI (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL)
While most movie buffs over the decades have pined for such elusive treasures as London after Midnight or Orson Welles' full cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, fans of independent oddities have their own list of lost gems-- and more than one of those were directed by Andy Milligan, the Staten Island filmmaker and theater director best known for his gothic cheapies that filled out double bills throughout the '70s. His acidic, unique, and wildly abrasive costume dramas laced with buckets of gore officially kicked off with The Ghastly Ones in 1968, but it wasn't until he temporarily relocated to England in 1970 that things became really, really interesting. Most people know this period for films like Bloodthirsty Butchers (his take on the Sweeney Todd story), Torture Dungeon, and Guru, the Mad Monk, but it wasn't all about horror films. At the start of his UK stage, Milligan directed the fascinating Nightbirds, sort of a psychological chamber piece of sexual anguish and melancholy mind games, which was promoted with a very long trailer and screened on a tiny handful of screens before disappearing completely from the cinematic landscape. While the trailer made the rounds since the late '80s on video compilations (including one of Something Weird's Twisted Sex collections), the film itself took on legendary status as the holy grail for Milligan fans (of whom a surprising amount have been accumulated in recent years) as a key title lost to the whims of time. Rumors abounded about its status and the condition of available materials, with one gray market VHS company announcing it back in the late '80s... but nothing ever materialized.
As home video has proven time and again, the seemingly impossible can happen when you least expect it, and lo and behold, Nightbirds returned from the dead after its lone surviving 35mm print went through a fortuitous change of ownership from author Jimmy McDonough (who wrote the astounding biography The Ghastly One, still one of the best books ever written about an American filmmaker - seriously!) into the hands of Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn and then to the BFI, who outfitted it with a special edition way beyond even what Andy's most famous films had ever received. (This excellent article at The Digital Fix gives a great rundown of the process to create a complete version of this film with the involvement of Something Weird, which was much more complex than you'd imagine.)
So, was the wait for Nightbirds worth it? Absolutely, though this will be a bit of a shock to anyone who's only familiar with Milligan's horror output. This has its share of torment and a bit of blood, but it's more in line with his more personal, bizarre fare like Seeds of Sin and his classic early short "Vapors." The simple plot charts the downward trajectory experienced by a young homeless Londoner named Dink (Kaler) when he's spied puking on the street by spooky blonde Dee (Shaw). They retire to a vacant loft and begin a sexual relationship that starts as a romantic playground but eventually becomes warped, with Dee becoming more controlling as other characters wander through their isolated makeshift home including a middle-aged prostitute (Heard). Dink also feels a need to nurture a wounded pigeon that crashes into their skylight, but Dee's instincts aren't quite as benevolent as his. As their strange master/slave relationship devolves, only one of them can come out on top in the end.
Perhaps due to Milligan's stage training, Nightbirds (originally titled Pigeons during filming) is a more structurally ambitious endeavor than some of his adaptations of gothic horror tales involving Dr. Jekyll or maniacs trying to get an inheritance. The relationship between Dink and Dee unfolds in a series of acts sometimes closing with odd, haunting montages of lovemaking which splinter into jagged close ups of the actors' bodies before fading to black. It's an odd, elliptical editing decision that gives the film a cyclical, dreamlike atmosphere, and the two leads actually give pretty committed performances; while Shaw didn't go on to much, newcomer Kaler returned for five subsequent Milligan films and even found mainstream work ranging from Red Riding to the UK TV favorite Coronation Street. What's interesting here is how sexualized he is in front of Milligan's camera, which practically molests him a few times; in the rest of their films together, he was either presented as a hunchback (more than once) or a mentally damaged goon.
Kaler's initial experiences working with Milligan and some of his future roles as well are covered in depth on the release thanks to a solid audio commentary with moderator Stephen Thrower (author of the delirious Nightmare USA), which spans everything from Kaler's early jobs (as a cashier and struggling actor) to his working rapport with Milligan (and the director's sharp temper) and his current successful pantomime stage productions in York. It isn't the most frenetic commentary you'll ever hear by a long shot, but the info here is valuable as it captures a peculiar chapter in both of the men's unorthodox careers. He also has an anecdote about how the pigeon died for the film, backing up the stories of Milligan's sadistic streak in real life and on the set.
The transfer of the film itself looks very good indeed, especially when one considers its ragged history and how close to oblivion it could have been. Shot on less than superlative film stock on 16mm, it's a grainy film with a fair amount of built-in debris and rough scene edits at times; however, that's actually a positive here as it adds to the seedy, bygone aesthetic of the main feature that would have been muted with an avalanche of excessive digital tinkering. Detail in motion is exceptional (frame grabs can't really capture how this one feels as it plays, but you can click on any of the grabs to get an idea), with a tight and pleasing cinematic appearance very close to watching it thrown off a projector. Anyone who's accustomed to the dupey, blown-up look from most of Milligan's films on video will be shocked to see how crisp and atmospheric this one actually is. Optional English subtitles are included along with a dialogue-only track, which is actually quite a bit more interesting than it sounds. This is essentially the raw production audio as it was originally stitched together for Milligan's assembly of the film, and you can sometimes hear sounds (and directions!) obviously scrubbed out of the final audio mix when sound effects and music were added. (If you've watched the reels of original footage Milligan shot for his cut of Seeds of Sin on the sadly now-discontinued DVD of The Ghastly Ones, you should have some idea of what to expect.) The very long (nearly six minutes!) original trailer of Nightbirds is included as well.
But wait! Though it isn't formally billed as such, this is actually a double feature containing another film Milligan shot in England the same year, The Body Beneath. This gothic vampire yarn has long been regarded as one of the best of his horror output, especially after Something Weird issued it on DVD in 2001 (one of their earliest titles out of the gate) in a drastically improved transfer for the time off of the original 16mm elements rather than the 35mm dupes used for most Milligan transfers. Well, now it's on Blu-Ray, and the results are spectacular! The original 16mm elements and a 35mm print for audio and reference purposes were used with some crucial missing footage slotted back in (such as a peculiar foot-centric sex scene deleted from release prints), bringing the running time back up to its longest possible variant at 82 minutes. The new transfer is an intoxicating experience if you're willing to glide along with Milligan's cockeyed filmic sensibilities, a statement that would've gotten most people slapped thirty years ago. The hailstone-sized grain blobs that terrorized his work for many theater audiences are exchanged here for a much more solid, refined appearance, with beautifully modulated, natural grain levels and sometimes psychedelic colors, especially the tripped-out climax. The opening credits sequence here also looks more solid than the Something Weird edition, which had to pull that segment from a 35mm print.
As for the story, it's about a string of vampire attacks in the English countryside centered around a church graveyard tied to the debauched Rev. Alexander Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed), whose vampiric bloodline is running out thanks to inbreeding. He decides to bring all of his human relations to Carfax Abbey, with one pregnant family member igniting his hope to continue the family tree across the pond in America. And yep, Kaler pops up in here as a hunchback, of course, and gets crucified to a tree in one of the film's most memorable moments, which we can now pinpoint as an echo of a previous scene from Nightbirds. Once again a dialogue-only track is included, which plays very differently from the finished production and includes plenty of aural production oddities to make it a handy document of the film's creation process. The theatrical trailer for the companion film is also included, and the valuable enclosed booklet features a heartfelt foreward by Refn, an absolutely hilarious intro by McDonough, a pretty spectacular 7-page chronicle of the often seedy circumstances behind Milligan's film distribution and his eventual production setup in London, additional Thrower essays about both of the films at hand, and a very detailed and compelling Milligan bio by Video Watchdog's Tim Lucas. While Milligan's films will never be embraced by mainstream culture or even many cult film circles, it's astonishing (and as much as Milligan would hate the term, almost a feel-good story) to see his work reassessed in recent years-- and this important release is not only the most important step to date in that process but perhaps the most vital act of movie resuscitation for unusual cinema yet on Blu-Ray.