Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Link (1986)

My notes on Link, which is due out on BluRay from StudioCanal.

“Eccentric zoologist Dr Philip (Terence Stamp) brings American student Jane (Elisabeth Shue) to his old dark house, perched on a cliff in the middle of nowhere, to work as his assistant over the summer.  In lieu of the traditional mad wife in the attic, Philip has three chimpanzees who are helping him in his studies of primates but unfortunately are liable to turn ferocious at the least provocation.  Chief suspect in the various sinister occurrences is Link, a circus-trained monkey who dresses as a butler and likes to play with matches.  When Philip disappears under mysterious circumstances, Shue is left alone in the house with the animals and her ordeal begins.

“Link is at heart an old-fashioned horror film, and all its Animal Magic lectures about the strength and intelligence of chimpanzees should be taken as seriously as all those speeches which ‘proved’ A-bomb tests were responsible for giant ants in the ’50s.  Stamp enters into the spirit of the thing with an extravagantly looney performance, and Shue does what she can in a role that goes against the grain of recent horror heroines (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street) in that she does all the stupid things and senselessly puts herself in danger at every turn.

“Director Richard Franklin (Psycho 2) and animal trainer Ray Berwick (The Birds) draw a miraculous performance out of the chimp who plays the evil Link, but – no matter how often we are told that chimpanzees can rip people’s limbs off – he looks too much like a tea bag advert to be really scary.  Furthermore, the film cuts away whenever the creature is about to do anything really horrible and so misses out on even the cheap shot way of establishing how evil it is.  Jerry Goldsmith’s scary/funny score tries to prop up the lukewarm action, but Link never really gets away from the clichés and into the disturbing areas inhabited by such revolt-of-nature films as The Birds, Frogs or Jaws.”

I wrote the above review on Link’s original release, and it was run in City Limits – the listings magazine that was one of my two major employers (with the Monthly Film Bulletin) in the 1980s.  Having revisited the film several times on new formats – VHS, DVD and now BluRay – I’m prepared to stand by things I said the first time round, amplifying the criticism in the light of George Romero’s subsequent Monkey Shines, which does manage to make its capuchin monkey scarier than the chimps who hawked PG tips in those ads that wouldn’t be allowed these days … but I’m fonder now of Link’s stab at old-fashioned horror.  Some of its stylistic tricks (slightly distorted POV shots, lengthy subjective camera creepings up walls and through windows) and naffnesses (the three British students who show up in the last reel to be extra victims) are extremely evocative of the mid-80s.

It was a Cannon production – released in the UK by Columbia-Cannon-Warner Distributors to the Classic/Cannon cinema chain, an alliance dissolved and a company long gone – and is typical of a certain type of Golan-Globus effort.  Actually, the Go-Go boys seem to have stayed out of the picture on this, allowing creative control to then-promising Aussie producer-director Franklin, co-producer and future Star Wars prequeliser Rick McCallum and Doctor Who veteran Executive Producer Verity Lambert.  An early line, when Terence Stamp of the ‘London College of Sciences’ refers to having a house ‘just up the coast’ (the attractive location is St. Abbs, in Scotland) suggests that Australian Everett De Roche’s screenplay might originally have been set in California (there’s another offhand line about this not being Malibu) and little is made of the heroine’s position as a Yank abroad.  Given his credits on other eco-themed horror movies (Razorback, Long Weekend), it’s tempting to think of De Roche as the film’s hidden auteur but away from his usual grotty Outback settings (he also scripted Franklin’s Road Games), he can’t deliver much in the way of local colour, which allows Stamp – who might be auditioning for Dr Who – to steal the show in the first half with a mix of charm, rudeness and waffle.  Lambert, co-creator of Doctor Who, was on board of course – and there’s also a dual cameo of former Who regular Caroline John and her husband Geoffrey Beevers (a one-time Master) in a teasing prologue.

Also very 80s (cf: The Howling) is the embroidery of the central theme with pop cultural artifacts that relate to it: a clip from Marlene Dietrich’s striptease-out-of-a-gorilla-suit in Blonde Venus (plagiarised for Batman & Robin) on TV, the echoing in Dr Philip’s lectures of then-familiar TV documentaries about monkeys (Washo the Chimp) taught to communicate with sign language (heard anything about that breakthrough recently?) and the welcome use of the Kinks’s ‘Apeman’ (the album version with the line ‘fucking up my eyes’ instead of the single’s ‘fogging’) for a singalong.  There is a problem in this approach: what Joe Dante did was show how a scary subject (werewolves) had been domesticated in cartoons and on chili can labels before reaffirming that they were still monstrous; Link is the sort of horror film that takes an apparently unthreatening subject (chimps are traditionally loveable scamps like Cheetah and Judy of Daktari) and reveals actually monstrousness, but constant reminders of the monkeys’ cuddly image makes the supposed scary stuff rather giggly.

Back then, Elisabeth Shue was the forgettable ingenue of The Karate Kid and the Back to the Future sequels, rather than the Oscar nominee of Leaving Las Vegas and – with Stamp taking an early bath – but she does amazingly well spending most of her time onscreen alone with a chimp.  A tiny reference to the heroine’s gig as a babysitter makes this the first in a trilogy of Shue-triumphing-against-adversity movies, followed by Adventures in Babysitting and Hollow Man.  Three Brit-dorks (Steven Pinner, Richard Garnett and David O’Hara) turn up at the end to up the body count.  This means has to play most of her scenes with the trained chimps (Link, Voodoo and Imp), presumably at a technical disadvantage as far as her performance goes (as Tony Curtis complained about Marilyn Monroe: any take where the monkey gets it right is favoured over one where the human has a good line reading).  The photography and settings are lush (it’s always nice to see remote corners of Britain used in horror movies), Stamp really is value for money (‘and his testicles … off’), the Jerry Goldsmith score is sly enough to undercut the silliness and the relative restraint in matters of gore seems less a handicap than it did in 1986.

Thanks to animal trainer Ray Berwick (who worked on The Birds), Link himself gives an astonishing performance – these days, you could hire Andy Serkis and all the CGI techs in California and not get anything better than some of Link’s reaction shots (his lecherous gaze when surprising Shue in the shower is a stunner) or more shocking than what is implied happens to the clot who reaches through the letter-slot to hold his hand.  Latterday terror by animal movies like Snakes on a Plane don’t work because they rely on computer trickery – whereas Link is in the old school as your subliminal awareness that Shue and Stamp really are in the same room as dangerous primates and interacting with them as fellow performers makes for a real frisson.

Its literally striking poster (Link holding a match) is up on my kitchen wall to this day.


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