• Nightbirds

    Released by:
    Released on: May 28, 2012.

    Director: Andy Milligan

    Berwick Kaler, Julie Shaw, Susan Heard,
    Year: 1968

    The Movie:

    One of a few movies that writer/director Andy Milligan made in London, Nightbirds makes its home video debut from the BFI under some rather interesting circumstances. The film was never released though Milligan did have a personal 35mm blow up print. When he passed away, the film wound up in the hands of Milligan’s biographer, Jimmy McDonough, who wound up selling it (along with a few other bits and pieces) to filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, the man who made Drive. As luck would have it, however, Milligan’s print was not complete as he had cut from it to make the trailer for the film. Something Weird Video (who had included the trailer for Nightbirds on one of their many trailer compilation releases), however, came to the rescue and supplied their 16mm elements from which a composite was made to present Nightbirds on home video for the first time ever and in its proper, complete form.

    So how does this movie, now available to the public for the first time (it never even received a proper theatrical release) shape up? As a somewhat twisted drama, it’s pretty decent actually. Let’s face it – a lot of Milligan’s movies were horrible but Nightbirds, as stagey as it is (the director’s theater experience shows here), proves to be fairly involving.

    When the story begins a beautiful woman named Dee (Julie Shaw) comes across as down on his luck young man named Dink (Berwick Kaler) and for reasons never really explained invites him back to her ramshackle apartment. He stays for a while and they soon develop a fairly intense and unusual relationship. She wants to have sex and he shows some signs of nervousness, which she takes to mean he’s a virgin – but he insists he’s had plenty of girls before even if later in the film he admits that all he did before she came along was masturbate a lot, sometimes two or three times a day. Regardless, Dee is quite experienced in the ways of love and Dink accepts this without jealousy or judgment.

    Things do get more complicated for our couple when they quickly run into money problems. They need a blanket and decide to shoplift one but that goes bad and Dink gets beaten up by the shopkeeper. When a man named Ginge who lives in the building and has a strange crush on Dee decides he wants more attention from her, Dink starts to get jealous, but so too does Dee when the couple meet with an older woman named Mabel, an aged former prostitute who he’s been ‘friends’ with for some time. Given that Dink continually tells Mabel how beautiful she is and insists at one point she stop flirting with him because she’s giving him an erection, their relationship is questionable. As Dink and Dee start to realize that maybe their relationship isn’t as perfect as it seems, even if they do have great sex together, power and control issues arise while the two attempt to nurse back to health an injured bird they’ve come across.

    Nightbirds is a strange film, as most pictures helmed by Milligan tend to be, but it’s quite well acted. Berwick Kaler, who would go on to quite respectable career on British stage and screen, is very good here as Dink. He’s obviously quite broken, and when he explains to Dee how his home life was ruined by his alcoholic parents we can see why he comes to her for nurturing and how at times he almost treats her as a child would treat a mother. This gives their relationship some strange traits, as does Dee’s penchant for ‘wanting to try new things’ when it comes to their sex life. It’s here, in these few short but fairly graphic (there’s both male and female full frontal nudity here) sex scenes that Dee seems to be most comfortable with her new boyfriend. Mabel’s involvement is also an interesting element, as she too plays a maternal figure to Dink, and though you never get the impression they’ve slept together the odd flirting that occurs between the two of them gives you the impression that they’d like to. This obviously affects Dee’s feelings towards Dink’s oldest friend and somewhat understandably causes issues later in the film.

    Kaler gives his character some interesting child like traits, at one point standing in the corner after being scolded by Dee, and later apologizing profusely and groveling at her feet after he strikes her out of anger. He plays the part with convincing immaturity and we completely buy him here. On the flip side, Julie Shaw plays Dee with gleefully manipulative intensity that lets us know in no uncertain terms who is in charge in this relationship. She controls and exploits Dink with no remorse, using both sex (and one point she tells him he can prove how much he loves her by performing oral sex on her) and simple caring to get what she wants from him and showing little regard for his actual feelings for her (he constantly tells her he loves her, she does not constantly tell him this). On top of this, she’s proven to be not only a consummate liar but quite heartless in regards to her own past and her own family – without treading into heavy spoiler territory there’s a very well played scene here in which a member of her family is in discussion with Dee and lets us know just what she’s been up to and what she may very well be hiding from. In typical Milligan fashion, the leading lady in this film is portrayed as anything but positive, but at least here there are reasons for it. Shaw is very good in the role and it’s a shame that she didn’t do much more outside of this film and two others around the same time.

    Shot by Milligan himself almost entirely inside the grubby little apartment that Dee rents (we do venture outside a few times but the bulk of the action takes place indoors), this could very easily have been a production for the stage. The film is well shot, with lots of close ups giving us ample opportunity to understand the emotions that they characters are going through, though the film often uses some of those bizarre camera angles that Milligan was known for. Although the film was obviously shot fast and cheap, Nightbirds turns out to be quite an interesting little psychosexual drama featuring some great performances and interesting subtext. It’s a bleak film to be sure, but quite fascinating in its own strange way.


    The BFI’s presentation of Nightbirds was transferred in high definition from the aforementioned archival elements under the supervision of Refn and the results are probably as good as you’re ever going to get. The fullframe AVC encoded 1080p picture shows good contrast and doesn’t suffer from any serious print damage but specs and small nicks and scratches are present throughout. Contrast on the black and white image looks good and those who appreciate a good grainy picture will appreciate the fact that the picture hasn’t been scrubbed down or bombarded with heavy noise reduction. Detail is fine considering the age and availability of elements, with close up shots showing the most but even medium and long distance shots showing off the dirt and decay evident throughout Dee’s apartment. There aren’t any issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement and while the image quality is obviously limited by the original photography, overall Nightbirds looks pretty good for what it is.

    Nightbirds gets two different audio tracks, a finished track and a dialogue only track, both presented in English language LPCM Mono. According to the materials provided with the disc, the 16mm magnetic track contained only the dialogue, whereas the 35mm print included the finished audio with the audio. Both tracks sound fine for what they are, limited in range but clean enough to follow without any issues. Some minor hiss and pops are around but never to the point where it’s much of an issue, really. Optional subtitles are provided in English.

    The main extra for Nightbirds is a commentary track with leading man Berwick Kaler in conversation with Stephen Thrower. This track doesn’t move at a particularly rapid pace and Kaler’s memory isn’t always razor sharp when it comes to working on this picture, so expect some dead air here and there but Milligan fans will appreciate the little gems that turn up in the track including an interesting anecdote about the fate of the bird in the film and the director’s involvement in the poor thing’s eventual demise. He notes that Milligan rarely did retakes and only did them on his terms, and talks about how he’s grateful that he was offered this leading role early in his career even if no one ever really wound up seeing the movie. Kaler himself hadn’t seen the film until just before this track was recorded, but he speaks somewhat fondly of the director and the film’s leading lady, though stops short of getting too affectionate for either and stating quite bluntly that he never really got the chance to know either of them. He does state that Nightbirds was shot in roughly two weeks and that he was paid very little for the movie, gives us a few bits and pieces on his work in The Body Beneath, and talks about shooting the sex scenes in Nightbirds before discussing his later career a bit. It’s occasionally slow going at times but given that this turns out to be a bit of a footnote in the actor’s career and a film he basically took on as work for hire, it’s understandable that more than forty years later he doesn’t have as much to say about it as other’s might about some of their own early work.

    What will also be of importance to Milligan fans is the inclusion of another one of the five movies he made in England, The Body Beneath, presented in high definition transferred from Milligan’s elements which Refn procured through the deal with McDonough. Though this movie was available on DVD from Something Weird Video (where it was paired with Milligan’s Vapors), seeing it in high definition is pretty great.

    The movie, a somewhat typical Milligan piece complete with bad costumes, follows Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford (Gavin Reed) who returns to his native England with the explicit intention of reopening the creepy Old Souls Church. What the locals don’t realize, however, is that Ford is actually a vampire who has enlisted the aid of his mute wife, Candace (Emma Jones), a trio of female vampires and a hunchback named Spool (Berwick Kaler again) to help him bring about a second coming of his vampire bloodline. To help set this plan in motion, he bites his granddaughter, Anna Ford (Susan Clark), he drugs her husband Graham (Colin Gordon) in order to allow his lady vampire minions to turn him into a vampire as well. If that weren’t bad enough, the fiends kidnap Ford's cousin, Susan (Jackie Skarvellis), with the intention of using her to breed a new line of vampire babies. When Susan's boyfriend, Paul Donati (Richmond Ross), tries to save his beloved, things start to go awry, particularly when Spool decides to help the Reverend’s victims and winds up being tortured!

    Made the same year as Nightbirds, The Body Beneath is about as different as it can be from the film Milligan made just a few months earlier. Gone are the claustrophobic interiors and artsy black and white shots, replaced here with garish use of color, fairly inappropriate period costumes and some fun gothic Victorian era locations. Gavin Reed steals the show here, playing the vampire minister with no shortage of enthusiasm and seemingly having quite a good time in the part. While the film itself is quite awful on most levels, Reed makes it watchable enough. Jackie Skarvellis is also fun as Susan, playing her part with a similar amount of spirit. While The Body Beneath is very much a vampire film, it’s interesting to note that they all wander around in daylight never once sporting fangs or showing any sort of abhorrence for crosses. Milligan shows little regard for the staples of the genre, instead infusing the picture with his typical flare for melodrama and characters who argue. A lot. There are plenty of logic gaps here, some strangely framed scenes (Milligan was his own photographer here as well) and dialogue that doesn’t really go anywhere or serve any purpose, but the score is great even if it’s frequently completely out of place. As goofy as it all is, The Body Beneath is one of Milligan’s more polished efforts and more accessible than most of his work. While it is still obviously a low budget film made by a slightly crazy director, there’s at least a fairly coherent story here and it moves along at a fairly decent pace. It’s not a masterpiece of horror by anyone’s standards but it’s entertaining enough and its inclusion on this disc is very welcome indeed.

    The Body Beneath is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33.1 one in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer. It looks about as good as you can expect though some fairly serious print damage crops up just past the half way mark that couldn’t be removed. Colors are some times a bit faded and scratches and specs are about, but this isn't going to put anyone interested in the movie off of it. Detail is pretty good, and again there are no issues with heavy noise reduction or edge enhancement. As it was with Nightbirds, the BFI have provided a dialogue only audio option and a finished audio option, both in LPCM Mono. Audio quality is on par with the earlier film in that it's a bit scratchy here and there but perfectly easy to follow and properly balanced.

    Rounding out the extras are theatrical trailers for both Nightbirds (clocking in at almost seven minutes and featuring some great and very sensational voice over work!) and The Body Beneath (featuring some great 'hushed' narration for maximum creepiness?), animated menus and chapter selection for both films. All of the extras on the disc are in high definition.

    Included with the disc is a booklet of liner notes featuring essays from Nicholas Winding Refn, Jimmy McDonough, Stephen Thrower and Tim Lucas which do a great job of shedding some light on the mysterious allure of Milligan’s work and of explaining the history of the two films included on this Blu-ray disc. There’s also some great artwork reproduced in here, including one sheets for both films and some cool black and white promotional stills.

    The Final Word:

    It’s pretty safe to say that if you’d have said even a few years ago that Andy Milligan’s films would get the deluxe treatment on Blu-ray, let alone from an organization like the BFI, most cult movie fans would have said you were off your rocker. Yet here we are, and two of his films, one of which is one of his most elusive pictures, are presented in all their glory in high definition and with some great extras too. While his movie’s aren’t for all tastes, anyone with an interest in Milligan’s films won’t need to have read this far to know that this disc is an essential purchase, while the fact that Nightbirds is actually quite well made and The Body Beneath is actually entertaining and fun makes this quite a good starting point for newcomers. Definitely one of the coolest Blu-ray releases of the year so far, this one comes highly recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 3 Comments
    1. bgart13's Avatar
      bgart13 -
      Good article on how this came to be and SWV's involvement:http://film.thedigitalfix.com/conten...eflipside.html
    1. george n's Avatar
      george n -
      Finally,another milligan title to cross from the list, I wonder if we will ever see any of his lost films
    1. Randy G's Avatar
      Randy G -
      Can't wait for my copy to arrive, the BFI Flipside series is absolutely stellar, would love to see Criterion or Kino do something similar.