Sunday, June 23, 2013

Link (1986)

Written by: Lee Zlotoff, Tom Ackermann, Everett De Roche
Directed by: Richard Franklin
Starring: Elizabeth Shue, Terence Stamp, Steven Pinner

We've all heard the phrase, “skeletons in the closet”. In the world of show business, a more apt phrase might be, “monkeys in the closet”. If you're a lifer in the art (and oftentimes, especially around here, that word is an extremely generous one) of cinema, chances are there's a monkey you don't want people to know about. If you're lucky, the monkey was in your youth, and now that you're a high profile star with a bunch of Oscars and such on your shelf, it's just something you hope not too many people remember. Some aren't so lucky. Look at Matt LeBlanc. Poor sap went from making a hundred grand an episode on Friends to making direct-to-video monkey movies for kids. Elizabeth Shue, on the other hand, can be considered lucky. Her monkey movie was not only quite good by the standards of these things, but she got to work with some people from Doctor Who to boot (and let me take a moment here to express my utter amazement the lack of monkeys in that show's history)!

Jane Chase is a grad student at a London university. She answers an ad for an assistant posted by high-profile primatologist Dr. Steven Phillip, and despite the fact that she didn't read the ad very closely because it was for volunteers to donate sperm for a genetic experiment (I assume he's trying to crossbreed chimps with humans, although it's never elaborated upon), he does have some work for her at his private compound.

When she arrives at the huge old manor house out in the middle of nowhere, she is greeted by Phillip's butler, Link. Link is a retired circus orangutan, who can understand a surprising amount of English and communicates using a computer that correlates a couple of hundred different shape buttons to words that Link can use to string together simple sentences. Jane takes to Link and a juvenile chimpanzee named Imp quickly, and doesn't have much time to get to know an older female chimp named Voodoo, who is supposed to be sold to a man from London. Shortly before the sale, Dr. Phillip disappears, leaving Jane and Link to take care of Imp and the house. When the man who was meant to buy Voodoo arrives asking why Dr. Phillip hasn't returned his calls for two days, and lets slip that he was also supposed to euthanize Link, who is 45 years old and is getting belligerent and aggressive in his old age, Jane starts to fear the worst.

For starters, she discovered Voodoo's mangled corpse in a cabinet earlier that morning, and for another, she had to call off a bath just before the ape exterminator arrived because Link wouldn't stop perving on her from the doorway. And that evening, she breaks several of Dr. Phillip's cardinal rules for dealing with the apes, when Link traps Imp in the well. Jane was warned to always forgive them any bad behavior immediately after any punishment that has to be given – never let an incident escalate without resolution – and to always let the apes work out any difference between themselves on their own. She breaks both of these rules by rescuing Imp and locking Link out of the house. He spends the rest of the day watching Jane and Imp playing through the skylight in Phillip's lab, and when a rainstorm hits, it's the last straw for the surly butler. Jane's boyfriend David, and his friends Dennis and Tom are on their way out to the compound to visit Jane, since they haven't been able to reach her by phone for days (Link microwaved the phone earlier), but the last thing they expect to find is a homicidal orangutan in a tux.

If the preceding paragraphs have made you unsure whether this movie is supposed to be funny or scary, then you realize exactly what this movie's biggest problem is. This is probably the most whimsical killer ape movie ever made. Solid performances all around (including and especially the apes) prevent the movie from ever losing credibility, but it's hard to avoid a certain amount of comedy when there's a cigar-chomping, tux-wearing orangutan running around the place. Every time we're reminded just how immensely powerful and potentially dangerous even the most well-trained ape can be, it's followed by Link lighting up a stogie or doing that goofy gesture apes do where they clap their hands on top of their head and stick their tongue out. Of course, considering the incredible range of expression he displays in more dramatic scenes, I assume that was all down to studio interference. The movie was originally made for EMI, who cut eight minutes out, and then EMI was bought out by Cannon Film Group, who cut a further five, and director Richard Franklin said the whole thing was a very frustrating experience.

Add to all of that Jerry Goldsmith doing his damnedest to channel Richard Band's more light-hearted work (there are several cues that reminded me of nothing so much as Re-Animator, specifically), and you can see where there could be some issues with tone. Even Link's demise seems like it's supposed to be played at least partially for laughs.

I mentioned up top that several Doctor Who alumni worked on Link as well. The family in the opening scene is played by Liz Shaw (companion to the Third Doctor, for those of you who aren't fans of the show) actress Caroline John, her husband Geoffrey Beevers (who played the Doctor's arch-nemesis the Master in the serial “The Keeper of Traken” just before the role was taken over by Anthony Ainley, as well as several Big Finish audio plays), and their daughter Daisy. And of course we can't forget the executive producer of Link, the mighty Verity Lambert. That name will mean even less to non-Who fans, but back in 1963 she was a young, female producer at the BBC who got saddled with this silly children's science fiction show that none of the good ol' boy bigwigs wanted anything to do with. With a faithful and enthusiastic cast and a bunch of up-and-coming talent behind the typewriters and the cameras, Verity took a show no one expected to last more than one season and turned it into one of the most iconic, and certainly the most enduring, science fiction TV programs of all time. I was hoping director Richard Franklin would also turn out to be the Richard Franklin that played Captain Mike Yates of U.N.I.T., but it was not to be.

Still, with a talent like Verity Lambert guiding the production, it's no surprise that despite all the pre-release turmoil and the mid-production corporate buyout, Link maintained a level of quality that most killer monkey movies don't wind up having even in the best of circumstances.

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