Thursday, January 08, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Link (1986)

Although relegated to limited theatrical release and near obscurity afterwards, director Richard Franklin’s Link (1986) is an effectively made and ingenious horror film that deserves to be better-remembered and, indeed, championed. 

The film depicts a tense battle for superiority, pitting man (or woman…) against ape in a remote English estate.  A sort of simian version of Psycho (1960), Link ponders a very specific question:  Does possessing “civilization” make man inherently superior to apes?

Or, contrarily, is civilization a mere construct that can be picked up or put down as easily as one takes off a dinner jacket? 

Is civilization a strength, or a weakness?

Throughout the Franklin film, when the titular chimp (played by an orangutan…) prepares to commit murder, he removes his tasteful jacket, as though noting that, simply, civilization has its limitations, and therefore, at times, must be ignored.

Link the ape wears civilization as if is a suit, but does not internalize its value.

Cleverly, Link presents three important “rules” that -- according to Terence Stamp’s anthropologist, Dr. Phillips -- must dominate man’s interaction with chimpanzees.  But then the film diagrams, in harrowing detail, what problems those rules can cause for both man and beast. 

After all, rules or laws are part and parcel of “civilization.” And yet by the same token rules, to some degree, establish boundaries that demand testing. Link tests those boundaries in his human “friends” and masters, and possesses a tactical advantage in the sense that he can avoid civilization all together simply by taking off the aforementioned jacket.

Humans, it seems, have a much more difficult time shedding this construct.

Buttressed by a superb final act which features a climax (and chase) of virtually unbearable suspense, Link explores man’s perpetual fascination or obsession with simians, and at the same time notes that civilization is both man’s greatest handicap and greatest virtue.

“The little monster’s been getting out at night…”

A zoology student in London named Jane (Elisabeth Shue) petitions Professor Phillips (Stamp), a prominent anthropologist, to serve as his assistant. With a semester break coming up, Phillips agrees that Jane can work at his remote estate, on the sea, as his assistant. 

There -- over the objections of her boyfriend, David -- she will prepare his meals, clean the house, and help him look after his chimps, including old Voodoo, baby Imp, and the intelligent “domestic,” Link.

Upon her arrival at the house in the country, Jane is unprepared for Phillips’ hostility and cruelty towards the animals. He plans to euthanize both Voodoo and Link, and tells Jane the hard and fast rules for dealing with the apes. 

However, Link soon turns the tables on Professor Phillips.

While Jane attempts to understand, precisely, the simian politics of the house, Link goes on a killing spree, and lays siege to the house and its occupants.

“You just have to let them know that they are forgiven…”

Writer Everett De Roche, Richard Franklin’s frequent creative collaborator, sets down three rules for man/ape interaction in Link. 

These are:

1. Man is the dominant species, so he must never treat the apes as equals.

2. Man’s anger must never escalate. He must always forgive the apes, no matter what they do. The apes must know that they are forgiven.

And, finally…

3 Man must not get involved in inter-ape squabbles, instead letting them work matters out for themselves.

Notice that, in a curious way, all three rules establish the same thing: man is in charge, and ape is subservient, inferior.

Rule one establishes dominance, but so does rule two, in more nuanced terms, because it is man who has the capacity (and responsibility) to forgive, not the apes.

The third rule, meanwhile, establishes that ape matters are beneath the interest of man and therefore to be ignored. Their affairs are not man’s concern.

Phillip’s Laws as we might call them overrule the law of the jungle, and demand that man act, constantly, as a deliberate superior to his ape friends. 

Amazingly, clever Link develops a way around these rules. He kills Voodoo (settling a squabble his own way), and is constantly seen demanding forgiveness, no matter how radically he transgresses, or what crimes he commits. 

If humans must always forgive, then Link can always simply extend his hand in supplication, no matter his trespass. Link realizes he has an out for any act that could get him in trouble: Rule #2.  He doesn’t realize that Dr. Phillip can break his own rule by offering not forgiveness, but a final solution: murder of the transgressor.

Yet if Link sees a way around the rules, he is not exactly deceitful in nature. By contrast, Phillips’ stock and trade is cruelty, and he plans to kill Link essentially because the animal has grown too smart; too knowing.

At least Link has the decency to remove his jacket when he gets down to murder, an affectation that Phillips doesn’t observe. He never casts off the face of civilization, though his act (homicide) qualifies as barbaric.

But Link is a clever movie, in part, because it establishes a film-long conflict between man and ape on all fronts. One early scene sees Jane pitted against Imp in an IQ test, and she nearly loses. The message is that intelligence is not the sole purview of man.  Intelligence is not the thing that separates us, then, and Link’s dialogue informs us that some apes have IQs as high as 85.

Another scene suggests that man is separated from ape by his capacity to make war. The movie undercuts that notion as well, and tells a story of a chimp “war” in Tanzania in 1979.

In the finale, Jane realizes that the only way to defeat Link is to trick him, and she does so by exploiting his understanding of Phillip’s Laws…of civilization itself. Link knows that he will be forgiven for his trespasses, including smoking. 

So Jane starts to discipline him, pre-emptively, for smoking a cigar near a lit gas pilot light in the kitchen.  Knowing he won’t face permanent anger or discipline, Link lights up the cigar, demonstrating his belief in his own superiority. 

Instead, he blows up the house and loses the war.

Watching Link again for the first time since 2005, I was struck by how similar the film is, in a sense, to Hitchcock’s Psycho. 

The setting is an isolated house with a very similar interior on the first floor, and the murderous individual (in this case Link, not Norman Bates) has an established routine for disposing of visitors (dumping cars not in a swamp, but over a rocky cliff, Oceanside). 

Furthermore, the villain is psychotic, one might surmise, due to a betrayal from a parental figure. Norman poisoned and killed his own Mother when she turned her affection away from him.  Link kills his father when he recognizes Phillip’s betrayal.  There’s even a bathroom scene here, with Link peeping at Jane as she is about to take a bath.

Link is more straightforward a film than Psycho is, in many respects, but both films trade on the notion that not everything is what it seems on the surface.  Phillips boasts a darkness to him that seems to bring about Link’s violent fit, and so a key question remains: is Link acting out of self-defense, or out of blood-thirstiness when he commits murder?  Norman’s activities, likewise, come out of the need and desire to emotionally protect himself from his mother’s death.  His murders are a form of mental self-defense, you might say.

One innocent figure in Link is the baby chimp, Imp. He is carried about on Shue’s shoulders throughout the film.  She reads him bedtime stories, and he is treated, essentially, like a human baby.  

This innocent is unencumbered by rules or knowledge of them, and suggests a blunt course of action.  “Kill Link,” Imp types into a computer. 

Jane responds that murder is “is not the way civilized people behave,” but ultimately, Imp is right.  Imp suggests the same course of action as Dr. Phillips does, but Imp gains audience sympathy because of his innocence, and because of his nature as an animal…one who understands instinctively what Link is capable of. Link, who has figured out how to game the rules, must die, because he keeps crossing lines of decorum or civilized behavior (murder, primarily).

Link is a great horror film, dominated by a number of great, almost sub-textual touches.  Early on, the film Blonde Venus (1932) is seen on a television, and shows footage of humans dancing with a gorilla (or a person in a gorilla suit).  Underneath the suit, Marlene Dietrich is revealed at one point.  So Dietrich removes her “costume” as a beast to reveal her civilized, human self.  This act is the precise opposite of Link’s in the film. He takes off his human suit to reveal his murderous, uncivilized, animal side.

Similarly, the lead character here is named “Jane,” and we associate that name explicitly with Jane in the Tarzan stories, and Jane Goodall, a famous primatologist and anthropologist.  In all these cases, Jane is a figure who is something of a go-between, moving between the human world and the ape world.  That is, not coincidentally, the role that Shue’s Jane plays here.

Finally, I love that Jane reads Imp the story of The Three Little Pigs in the film, because the last act literalizes the story, with Link as the Big Bad Wolf outside, trying very hard to make his way inside the house. 

A formalist like Hitchcock, Franklin surpasses his earlier film work in Link by staging some remarkable and expressive shots during the movie’s final battle. After Jane picks up a shot-gun and shoots at Link, Franklin stages a gorgeous shot through the bullet hole in the kitchen door. 

Later, he stages an extreme high-angle shot from above the second floor balcony, and follows Link’s pursuit of Jane, Imp and David up the stairs, around the ledge, and into a locked room.  The effect is exhilarating, as the long-shot provides viewers the full terrain of the battle, and offers no fakery or trickery.  A sense of space and time -- and therefore danger -- is brilliantly preserved. While so many films sort of wind-down or creatively peter out in the third act (see: Explorers [1985]), Link delivers the thrills.

For some reason, audiences got a lot of “ape”-based horror movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Link, Monkey Shines (1988), and Shakma (1990).  

I’m a big fan of Romero’s Monkey Shines, but even so Link remains, in my eyes, top banana.

(Note: I will post an old interview [from 2005] that I conducted with Richard Franklin about the film, later today, on the blog.)


  1. You do realize humans are apes, right? :-)

    1. Hi Nowhere,

      I hope I didn't give the impression that I was writing in a technical sense. I was using ape/human in the same way that the title "Planet of the Apes" does. It doesn't mean Planet of the Humans...


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