Anatomy of a Flipside: Part Four, How Do You Rate a Flipside?

Throughout May the Digital Fix will be taking a behind the scenes look at one of this month’s BFI Flipside releases, Andy Milligan’s 'Nightbirds'. In weekly instalments we’ll be tracing the disc’s course from conception to production, explaining how and why this film was chosen for release and the various problems (and solutions) the DVD team faced in bringing it to a home audience. Each step will be accounted for, from transferring the film elements and selecting the extras to putting together the booklet and the packaging. This week we finally take a look at the films themselves... (If you've missed the previous instalments, you can find them here.)

Meet Dee and Dink, a waif and a stray holed up in some shitty East London flat. They were born Dolores and Donald, a sign, perhaps, that they once led quite ordinary lives. Nowadays they’re just another pair of outsiders, keeping each other company in some kind of misappropriation of a love story. Their London is a miserable place - it’s bleak, black and white and shot on cheap film stock to boot; no wonder they prefer to remain indoors during the day. Except that inside is no better. Sex, conflict and confessions on a constant loop where even the good stuff plays out as power struggle.

This is the world of Nightbirds, one which many had thought was lost forever. It was the first of Andy Milligan’s films to be shot on foreign soil, transplanting his unique style and approach to a new territory. He’d arrived in London during the late sixties and stuck around long enough to complete five features, although none played British cinemas. It is only now that the film is finally receiving a proper release in the UK, thanks to the efforts of Nicolas Winding Refn and the BFI as related over the past few weeks. At last the chance for Milligan fans to see the rarest of all his works and also the perfect opportunity to introduce the man to a whole new audience. But how does it fare as a Flipside?

The strand has dealt with outside voices before. The most celebrated is Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End, which even went as far as to recreate parts of the UK in a West German film studio and make use of a heavily German supporting cast. (Not that anyone noticed the joins - perhaps we are all too entranced by Jane Asher and her canary yellow raincoat?) Polish-born Skolimowski has been joined in the Flipside by two American directors - Richard Lester (The Bed Sitting Room) and Stuart Cooper (Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs) - and, more pertinently to Milligan and Nightbirds, a pair of Canadians by the name of Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq.

Despins and Dumaresq have two films in the Flipside, Duffer and The Moon Over the Alley, which were released as a double-bill in early 2011. The first is a dour little tale of mental and physical torture quite unlike anything else you’ve seen. The second is just as singular - a musical, of all things, where Brecht and music hall meet violence, paedophilia and gritty social realism. In Duffer we find a kinship with Nightbirds: a low-key, low-rent psychodrama from the scuzzier side of British cinema, entirely unconcerned with ideas of taste or respectability. In The Moon Over the Alley we have a resemblance to the accompanying feature on this new release, The Body Beneath. Both are oddball genre flicks, although in Milligan’s case it’s horror we’re dealing with not the musical.

It is with the horror movie that we most readily associate Milligan. Four of the five British features concerned themselves with vampires, werewolves and the like, whilst 1968’s The Ghastly Ones, made in his home country, would later re-emerge as a video nasty. Despite the strong connection there’s nevertheless a feeling that he never really got it. The Body Beneath has all of the component parts of a horror flick and yet they never manage to come together in a classical or conventional sense. Milligan’s cinema is one of dislocation, as though the celluloid itself is prone to mood swings. People speak in a declamatory fashion, the choice of library music is often bizarre, minor characters put in an appearance purely to be aggressive (a catty waitress and two young female shoppers - “Dirty sods!” - steal the honours in Nightbirds) and immense tonal shifts infect the joins between scenes.

Such a combination should ruin a feature. Yet there’s something captivating to Milligan’s films. Those mood swings create their own off-kilter rhythms which, if surrendered to, can be really quite hypnotic. Nightbirds is arguably more attuned given how these shifts connect to the central couple. What we see is just as fumbling, awkward, maddening and shocking as their relationship; the perfect means, in other words, with which to get under its skin. The Body Beneath, meanwhile, succeeds because it has an actor who fully understands Milligan’s approach. Gavin Reed, who plays head vampire the Reverend Alexander Algernon Ford, is just perfect in the role. His resemblance to Reece Shearsmith, both in looks and performance style, may suggest a League of Gentlemen/Psychoville parody before its time, but there’s more to it than that. It’s camp, certainly, and more than a little knowing, yet not once does it feel as though Reed is taking the piss out of Milligan’s creation.

Stephen King once described The Ghastly Ones as the work of “morons with cameras”. Such assessments have seen Milligan categorised as a bad filmmaker, but it’s a judgement that’s more than a little unfair. Watching Nightbirds and The Body Beneath reveals an erratic filmmaker, without a doubt, and one whose productions probably demanded some added attention. (Berwick Kaler, during his commentary, notes how another take or two would have ironed out some of the creases.) Yet our approach should be similar to Reed’s: know what we’re letting ourselves in for and embrace the camper side of things, but never take the piss. At times Milligan can create moments which are genuinely effective. Nightbirds has a frankness to its language and imagery that sets it aside from the vast majority of what British cinema was producing at the time - perhaps only Duffer offers up genuine competition. (The original trailer, a five-minute compilation of the most salacious bits, has earned itself an 18 certificate from the BBFC.) The Body Beneath, on the other hand, is so offbeat in its use of various horror clichés and mainstays that it becomes its own unique take on the genre, akin to the Euro-horror of a Jess Franco or Jean Rollin or, more tellingly, such British-shot gems as Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue and José Ramón Larraz’s Vampyres. The ingredients are immediately recognisable, but the outcome is something entirely different.

This mixture of the familiar and the alien arguably plays a key part in the Flipside. The series takes the national cinema we thought we knew so well and presents it anew, revealing facets and dimensions of which few were aware. Who knew, prior to the release of Primitive London and London in the Raw, that there were British equivalents of ‘mondo’ movies? How many people can honestly say they’d previously seen Voice Over or Requiem for a Village before they were disinterred by the Flipside? The supplementary shorts and supporting features especially have been the real eye-openers, surveying areas of cinema even more obscure and neglected than the main events.

With that said, it could be claimed that there are two types of Flipside film. There are those, such as Deep End or Little Malcolm, which could easily have been released by the BFI regardless of the strand existing or not. They have the requisite level of respectability, as it were. By way of contrast the likes of the ‘mondo’ docs or Britain’s first feature-length sex film (as Norman J. Warren’s Her Private Hell is considered) would surely raise eyebrows had they been issued outside of the strand. Admittedly the waters are getting increasingly muddy in this respect - there’s an upcoming Blu-ray of Hugh Hudson’s Revolution and we’ve had releases centred on British-born filmmakers as diverse as Tony Scott and Peter de Rome - though Milligan would no doubt succeed in raising eyebrows no matter what the context. Some of the Flipsides to date have been pretty out-there (witness Joanna or Herostratus), but inducting this particular director into the series surely pushes the boundaries furthest.

That’s not to say it doesn’t deserve its place, however. Or, for that matter, that it doesn’t fit. In the Flipside scheme of things, Nightbirds is no more or less valid a psychodrama than Duffer or James Hill’s Lunch Hour. Similarly, The Body Beneath is no more or less valid a slice of offbeat genre filmmaking than the two Pete Walker titles in the series, Man of Violence and The Big Switch. Indeed, Milligan’s voice is no more or less valid than any of the other directors to have been included to date - there’s certainly no denying that it’s a distinctive one.

As for the overall package, this latest release represents yet more sterling from the BFI. The transfers were discussed in part two (link) and the extras in part three (link) which should give a fair idea of the amount involved. Nonetheless, a couple of points are worth reiterating. Firstly, the presentation is never going to be ‘demonstration disc’ standard owing to the low production values of the two features involved. These films simply cannot look as spectacular on Blu-ray as The Tree of Life, say, and yet just as much care and attention has gone into bringing them to disc. Secondly, the extras package is exemplary. Stephen Thrower is the star of the show, his booklet research into Milligan’s British features ultimately resulting in the Flipside’s first commentary. It’s the perfect summation of the extra distance gone into bringing Nightbirds and The Body Beneath to a UK home audience. A film once thought lost has been tracked down, treated with the utmost respect and is now awaiting its audience.

For Digital Fix reviews of all of the Flipside releases to date simply click here.

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