Studio: Kino Lorber
Release date: May 14th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Richard Franklin is one of those Rumpelstiltskin filmmakers, one of those guys who could spin gold out of the most absurd stories. A movie about a homocidal, comatose mental patient? No big deal--it only became a one of the seminal Ozploitation joints. Nobody in their right mind should have wanted to helm Psycho II, but Franklin somehow turned it into one of the best sequels ever made. And then there’s Link, which might be even more impressive in this respect because it’s about a demented chimpanzee stalking Elisabeth Shue around a cavernous mansion. Like, that’s pretty much the entire movie, and it fuckin' rules.
There’s a little more to it than that, of course, and I think that only makes Link more impressive since Franklin patiently dedicates a lot of screen time to the build up. Shue is Jane Chase, an American college student studying zoology in Britain. She embarrassingly mistakes a call for sperm donors as an ad for a personal assistant, leading to an awkward moment with Dr. Steven Phillip (Terence Stamp), a renowned professor who specializes in primate studies. But once he thinks about it, Phillp decides he could use someone around his house to cook and clean. Jane cheerfully agrees, insisting that she has a genetic predisposition to these tasks because she’s female. Before she knows it, she finds herself out in a rural countryside mansion with Phillip and a legion of chimpanzees he keeps around the house. Among them is Link, a 45-year-old chimp who acts as a butler and takes a quick, possibly unnatural liking to Jane.
Over half of the movie--which runs 103 minutes despite a thin premise--finds Jane acclimating to her new surroundings, blissfully ignoring the many red flags Phillip is flying. Forgetting for a second the squeamish implications of a professor letting a student shack up with him, what kind of man keeps and conducts experiments on chimpanzees? Stamp is marvelously shifty as Phillip during this stretch, revealing himself to be a bit of a tyrant around the house as he subjects Jane and the chimps to tests, all while holding some shady conversations on the phone. For a brief moment, it looks like all of the stuff involving the chimps might just be a misdirection setting up the reveal that Phillip is up to some nefarious, psychotic shit.
But thankfully that’s not the case. Link is indeed a horror movie about a deranged chimp. Or, as Franklin called it, an “anthropological thriller” about a deranged chimp. Usually, I’d bristle at such pretentious terminology, but apparently Franklin coined it because he didn’t want to be accused of just doing Hitchcock again. Plus, it really speaks to his commitment to making an honest-to-god stalk-and-slash thriller involving goddamn chimpanzees. He and frequent collaborator Everett De Roche prove as much by not being in too much of a rush to get to the “good stuff.” Instead, Link has a bizarre, janky rhythm to it (thanks in part to Jerry Goldsmith’s incongruously jaunty score) that puts the audience in limbo as they come to realize that Link isn’t a playful scoundrel but rather a complete asshole.
I hate to say that about a chimpanzee, but I must speak my truth: Link fucking sucks. Oh, sure, it’s kind of charming early on when he plays with matches, engages in some banter using a computer, and shows Jane around the house. Shit, you can maybe even forgive him for microwaving a telephone because he doesn’t know any better. Slowly but surely, though, you start to sense something downright sinister lurking behind his innocuous facade, and it’s all thanks to an all-time great performance by Locke, an orangutan made up to resemble a chimpanzee. Link is required viewing if only to see this triumph of simian performance. You will believe a primate can be genuinely menacing without resorting to physical violence, starting with a pivotal scene where Link forces his way into the bathroom to watch Jane take a bath. It’s a deeply strange exchange, made all the more unsettling by the way Franklin uncomfortably lingers on the moment. There’s a long shot of a nude Elisabeth Shue staring down this chimp like it’s a Western showdown, only it unfolds in a bathroom. I swear that you can read a shit-eating grin in Link’s expression, almost as if he knows he’s up to no good.
Because he is, of course, and things only escalate from this moment. De Roche and Franklin cleverly wring a ton of carnage out of this scenario. Dr. Phillip disappears, firmly setting the film on edge, where it teeters as the screenplay orchestrates various reasons for its title character to go wild. One of Phillip’s contacts arrives to take Link away, only to discover the chimp isn’t about to let that happen. Eventually, Jane’s boyfriend (Steven Pinner) grows worried enough to ride out to the mansion for a check-up and brings a couple of expendable buddies along, giving Link ample opportunity to pile up a fairly impressive body count.
Even this stuff isn’t totally schlocky, though. Link remains exquisitely directed throughout, which is a strange to say about a movie involving a psycho ape. But that’s just it, of course: Franklin doesn’t treat it that way, preferring instead on sharp craftsmanship to ratchet up the tension and suspense. There’s a restraint to Link that’s evident from the opening scene, which sees Franklin’s camera prowling through British suburbia for a long POV take, creating the impression of an unseen creature crawling into a family’s house to scare a young girl. It’s sort of like the opening scene in Halloween, only it ends with shots of scattered dead animals. While it has no bearing on the plot, it’s a nice mood-setter and prepares the audience for these more reserved, stylish socks. Franklin dwells on the utter strangeness of Jane’s alienation, emphasizing it with lingering establishing shots of the desolate countryside: it’s not enough that this poor girl is stuck with this possessive chimp, but she’s also trapped in a gothic pastoral novel. If you think that’s a stretch, take it up with Franklin, who admitted to channeling Jane Eyre, as if Link needed to feel any more offbeat.
Credit is also due to Shue, who is as straight-laced as everyone else here. Effortlessly likeable in a tricky role that has her sharing most of her screentime with chimps, she has a plucky steadiness that grounds the story. Again, it’s so easy to imagine a version of Link that just goes right for the throat and asks the audience to indulge the squeamish, grisly possibilities of this story, but Franklin refuses to go there because he envisions Jane as a rugged survivor, not a victim. Even the climax is more of a cat-and-mouse thriller instead of pure stalk-and-slash carnage (though there is a bit where it’s implied Link bites a guy’s arm off through a mail slot and the crunching sound is worse than any on-screen mayhem they could have put on-screen). Jane and Link spend most of this time trying to outwit each other, and the film pays off some clever foreshadowing with an explosive finale. Because I don’t know about you, but I like my anthropological thrillers to have explosive finales.
Thank goodness for Richard Franklin, who obviously felt the same way. Link is one of the finest testaments to his skills as a filmmaker precisely because he knew how to take unusual stories and take them just seriously enough. He’s likely one of the few people who could've seen “an obsessed chimp wants Elisabeth Shue all to himself” and imagined he could fashion a genuinely harrowing thriller out of it. Link is just a coiled spiral of strangeness, and you can almost feel Franklin stifling a laugh at the absurdity of it all. He never breaks, though it might be fair to say he cracks a smile with a quietly unhinged sight gag. I’d call it “Hitchcockian,” but I doubt he would have appreciated that; plus, Link proves that Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” maxim has nothing on the “stove, gas, and cigar” maxim on display here. Advantage, Franklin.
Link is one of those titles that made it to DVD fairly early in the format’s lifestyle, arriving courtesy of StudioCanal and Anchor Bay way back in 2001. Unfortunately, this resulted in a lengthy out-of-print spell until Kino Lorber finally brought it to Blu-ray in 2019 with a new 4K scan and some decent supplements, including a short audio interview with Franklin and some cutting room floor material. Not only does the disc feature 25 minutes of deleted scenes from the film’s workprint, but it also features an early demo of Goldsmith’s weird main theme. Film historian Lee Gambin and critic Jarret Gahan also provide an audio commentary for the feature. No less than 3 different trailers round out this fairly solid release, which could have been bare bones for all I care: this is a title I’d been wanting to add to my collection for years, and this disc does not disappoint.
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