DVD/Blu Ray combo pack Released by BFI Flipside
Review by Kier-La Janisse
“I feel like a vampire in the sunlight when you smile”
- Dee (Julie Shaw) in Andy Milligan’s NIGHTBIRDS
While filmmaker Andy Milligan is persistently associated with his usual playground of Staten Island, with a regular stable of actors who participated in his ramshackle pictures and theatre projects, he did spend a year and a half in London from 1968 to early 1970, where he made five films with the production company Cinemedia. As with his arrangement with 42nd St theatre owner William Mishkin, who served as both producer and exhibitor of his films in New York, Cinemedia was owned by the same parent company that ran the Soho theatres where Milligan’s films habitually played in London. The first of these five films was Nightbirds (originally called Pigeons), which was never seen again and long thought lost until Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonagh sold the only known 35mm print to filmmaker and exploitation film champion Nicholas Winding Refn, who set about restoring it for this release. This marks the film’s first time ever on home video, and it is one of a few Milligan films I’ve been dying to see since reading McDonagh’s book The Ghastly One, so I for one am pretty stoked about its acknowledgment as a British countercultural masterwork via the BFI Flipside imprint.
Nightbirds stars Berwick Kaler in his screen debut (although he would go onto four more Milligan pictures before eventually landing on such popular British TV shows as Coronation Street and Auf Wiedersehn Pet) as the unfortunately-named Dink, a downtrodden former spoiled momma’s boy who’s run away from home and has been living on the streets. He is approached by a looker named Dee (Julie Shaw), who he dubs a “Florence Nightingale of the streets” when she offers to take him home and give him something to eat. Set in a squalid section of London’s East End, the two hole up in Dee’s one-room apartment and embark on a co-dependent sexual relationship. But this relationship reveals itself to be rather one-sided, as he bares his soul to her, telling her of his troubled family life while she evades his questioning about her own background. As their relationship intensifies they become more and more afraid of anything intruding on their bubble – or their ‘castle’ as they call it – and she is especially opposed to their going out during the daytime. Jealousy becomes rife on both fronts: Dee is jealous of Dink’s friend Mabel, a crass former prostitute who adopts a somewhat maternal relationship to Dink (despite her obvious sexual attraction to him), and Dink is none too pleased when he discovers Dee’s “arrangement” with her sleazy Irish landlord. They both want to isolate eachother from friends and other outside influences, but Dee is clearly the dominant party; it turns out Dink’s gone from one domineering woman (his mother) to another, but one with infinitely more power since she’s introduced him to sensual pleasures and the illusion of love.
And while these kinds of sexual and emotional conflicts are familiar terrain to Milligan viewers, the tell-tale Milligan stamp is that Dee’s predatory games are syphilitic in nature. Much is made of Milligan’s ‘love him or hate him’ reputation, but apologetic admonitions aside, Milligan is like a Stateside Jean Rollin, revisiting certain themes over and over throughout a singularly visionary career, with whatever miniscule budget may be available to him. As with many of his films, predominant themes here include co-dependence, psychic vampirism, jealousy and bad blood. With its two leads commanding nearly every scene together in a contained environment, the film also seems like an extension of Milligan’s theatrical background.
Although Milligan’s films are routinely categorized as horror, Nightbirds is not a horror film so much as a dishevelled nouvelle vague-type drama somewhere between Breathless and Last Tango in Paris, and a predecessor to genre-defying films like Simon Rumley’s Red White and Blue. And since the rambling nouvelle vague approach implies an inseparability from its historical, geographical and social context, it’s interesting to note that the London of Nightbirds isn’t swinging as much as clinging desperately to life. Sure, Dee might have white lipstick and Dink a sideswept part, but aside from these visual signifiers of the era’s fashions, clearly London wasn’t swinging for everyone.
Visually the transfer is almost pristine, but sound is a bit choppy and seems to have some digital glitches, part of which is due to the original production’s technical limitations. The restoration here is a composite of 16mm and 35mm elements put together from the collections of project patron Nicholas Winding Refn and Something Weird Video (a feat, since the latter are not known for being generous with their archival materials).
Extras include a commentary track with actor Berwick Kaler (“It’s not that exciting, but it sort of grips you,” he muses – although I swear I can hear someone snoring behind him), trailers for both Nightbirds and The Body Beneath and the full film of The Body Beneath (again starring Kaler, this time as the hunchbacked character Spool), available – as is Nightbirds – in a fully mixed or dialogue-only soundtrack. A gallery of heavy hitters populates the liner notes: Nicholas Winding Refn, Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonagh, Stephen Thrower and Tim Lucas – all of which combine to make this an essential addition to any cult cinephile’s collection.