Friday 29 January 2021

LINK (1986)

Directed by: Richard Franklin. Starring: Terence Stamp, Elisabeth Shue, Steven Finch.

UK 1986, 104 mins, Certificate 12.

Released on Blu-ray, DVD & digital download digital on 1st February 2021 by Studiocanal.

Thankfully, Australian director Richard Franklin (PATRICK, ROAD GAMES, PSYCHO II), chose not to heed W.C Fields’ advice to never work with animals or children when he helmed his pet project (no pun intended) high-concept killer chimp flick, LINK. Eschewing the conventual wisdom of using stunt performers in ape costumes, Franklin plumped for dyeing an orangutan’s fur black and kitting him out with prosthetic ears to provide his gloriously barmy conceit with its titular ‘chimpanzee’.

A brief plot summary just doesn’t do this film justice in terms of its numerous jaw-dropping elements. But for the record, future Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue (THE KARATE KID, BACK TO THE FUTURE II/III, LEAVING LAS VEGAS), plays American zoology student in London ‘Jane’, in a far from subtle Tarzan reference from Ozploitation scripter Everett De Roche. Taking a summer job at a remote gothic farmhouse pitched picturesquely and precariously on a cliff-top along the English coastline, her goal is to work for, and study with, its human inhabitant, Dr Steven Phillip. Sporting a wild mop of hair and a crazed Rik Mayall like appearance, it’s none other than ‘General Zod’ (SUPERMAN II) himself Terence Stamp. Dr Phillip, a mad misguided anthropologist, is studying the link (ahem), between man and ape, and rather dubiously exploring the concept of ‘civilisation’ by utilising his prime primate chimpanzee ‘Link’ (played by Locke the orangutan) as a butler.

(Side note: the film’s German title was literally ‘Link, der butler’).

In addition to which, Dr Phillip also encourages his former circus trained captive companion to recreate his talent for lighting and smoking cigars. (This is foreshadowing folks). In addition to Link, Dr Phillip is also working with a rather aggressive and mostly caged elder female chimp ‘Voodoo’, and a deceptively playful younger chimp, ‘Imp’, who may well be not nearly as child-like and innocent as the cheeky little scamp appears. This dysfunctional and frankly disturbing set-up cranks up through several bizarrely unnerving notches until Jane finds herself suddenly abandoned and alone in the farmhouse with the three primates. And she’s about to find out quite how accurate were Dr Phillip’s graphic warnings about the inherent aggressive nature of chimps…

This stylishly idiosyncratic addition to the killer primate sub-genre, released two years before George A. Romero’s critically regarded MONKEY SHINES, is often unjustly overlooked. Having pulled off, with some considerable aplomb, the unenviable task of delivering a worthy sequel to Hitchcock’s seminal shower slasher, director Franklin (a Hitchcock devotee), works in several PSYCHO references in his commendably warped take on beauty and the beast. Dispensing with the star-billed lead a third of the way in mirrors PSYCHO structurally. A further doff of the cap occurs from a notable dissolve into a bath drain sequence. Then there are the PSYCHO (and PSYCHO II) reminiscent interiors, crowned with the ominous looming overhead shots of the grand staircase. Lensed by veteran cinematographer Mike Molloy (who worked as camera operator for Kubrick on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and BARRY LYNDON), Franklin pulls out all the stops visually, including a bravura opening POV sequence stalking a pursued cat up a trellis and across a rooftop toward a pigeon coop, whilst cutting to TV footage of Marlene Dietrich emerging from a gorilla costume in BLONDE VENUS.

Even though most of the film’s mayhem (and modest final third body count) occurs offscreen - which may have harmed its commercial success – the tangible simian threat (not to mention the added menace of attack dogs) is convincingly staged thanks to the work of animal trainer Ray Berwick (THE BIRDS) and skilfully judicious editing.

The actual ‘performance’ from Locke the orangutan as ’Link’, garnered from the meticulously crafted use of montage, is brilliantly nuanced, and the scene whereby Link perves at a naked Elisabeth Shue is unforgettably disturbing on several levels.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith (scoring again for Franklin after PSYCHO II), opts for an impishly playful musical approach, reminiscent of his GREMLINS work, which perfectly complements the largely tongue-in-cheek off-kilter material on screen.

Inspired by the work of primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall (perhaps another reference for Elisabeth Shue’s character’s name), LINK is a far more interesting work than its somewhat limiting and misleading tagline: ‘an experiment in terror’ suggests. Thematic development and character backfill were pruned from the released print’s running time, but thankfully there is some tantalising clues to the originally intended version provided on this disc with a generous reel of deleted workprint scenes.

As well as a superbly restored HD transfer, which showcases the richly infused visual storytelling of this hairy tall tale, there’s also some juicy treats to forage for.

A new audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin, (author of ‘Massacred by Mother Nature’) and film critic Jarret Gahan is both exhaustive and exhausting. Lee’s boundless enthusiasm for nature-centric horror films is infectious, and it’s a great accompaniment. Film programmer and horror expert Anna Bogutskaya’s interview offers a fascinating reading of the film, and a short audio interview with director Franklin serves up some tantalising titbits about the project. (I particularly chuckled at his disappointment with the work ethic of the British film crew and their slavish devotion to tea-breaks. Perhaps it was the simian cast providing a constant reminder of PG Tips TV commercials?). Jerry Goldsmith’s demo of the main theme is included as an audio extra – fair warning, it’s an infectious earworm, and the original UK trailer rounds off a decent selection of extras.

LINK is very much a product of its time. Were it to be made today (highly unlikely, granted) we would probably have Andy Serkis’ motion-capture wizardry replacing living breathing primates. Of course, it is morally questionable to stick fake chimpanzee ears on an orangutan and dye his fur (or for that matter dyeing a tiger in order to play a black panther, Don THE BEASTMASTER Coscarelli I am looking specifically at you here) purely for the pursuit of entertainment. But LINK is nevertheless far more than one-dimensional schlock, and worthy of reappraisal and appreciation.                        

Paul Worts

****(out of 5*)

This review was originally published by FrightFest.