|The movies have a long obsession with apes going ape, though their inception point, plotwise, may well be Edgar Allan Poe's celebrated 1841 detective story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, where it was revealed the killer wasn't human at all, but simian (Clive Barker's 1984 short story New Murders in the Rue Morgue had the razor-wielding ape shaving itself to pass for human - this remains unfilmed). But ever since the invention of the gorilla suit, our closest neighbours on the chain of evolution have had a pretty raw deal should they ever stray into a science fiction or horror flick, and so it was with director Richard Franklin's Link in 1986.
Franklin was encouraged to use performers in animal costumes here, as in the then-recent Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and that might have succeeded, only the tendency for that is they are fairly obviously not authentic creatures. Fast forward a few decades and pictures such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2014) were using computer graphics to remove any need for trained animals whatsoever, they were played by people acting out the moves matched by the graphics, quite often with Andy Serkis involved somewhere. This offered an undeniable fascination to look back on films that utilised trainers to "persuade" the apes to serve up an actual performance.
Now, this did not always go well. When future President of the United States of America Ronald Reagan starred in comedy Bedtime for Bonzo in 1951, as far as we know the chimp was well treated and got along famously with Ronnie. Johnny Weissmuller in his famed Tarzan part earned his Cheeta co-stars' respect and was well-liked by the chimps. However, Mike Henry in Tarzan and the Great River was attacked by his Cheeta, needing stitches to his face, and it went the other way, too: Clint Eastwood's orangutan co-star Clyde in Every Which Way But Loose was so savagely trained that the poor beast was beaten to death by his master shortly after the filming was completed, to the horror of animal lovers everywhere.
Gorillas are generally considered the violent types of the ape world, and that is reflected in titles like Gorilla and Large (1954) and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952), where those costumes were implemented to menace the characters, but chimpanzees can be incredibly violent, even more than the relatively peaceful gorillas. It was Jane Goodall's research into chimp culture that inspired Franklin to make Link, with Everett De Roche on scripting duties, they being regular collaborators on horror-inflected thrillers at the time. Goodall had demonstrated chimps would "wage war" on each other as humans did, a nugget of information Franklin tucked away and used in the dialogue, delivered by Terence Stamp as the ever-so-slightly nutty scientist who examines apes at his home.
His home was a remote country house on the Cornish coast (Scotland doubling for it with some striking scenery) where he keeps three apes, two chimps and an orangutan named Link (which may supposed to be a chimp, it's not clear). Eager to please student Elisabeth Shue volunteers to help Stamp out at this retreat and before you can say "going ape" she has arrived by taxi at the manor, having been warned by the driver not to go walking too far since there are fierce dogs roaming the countryside that can do serious harm. The trouble with the rest of the set-up is, the slow to cotton on Shue may be in danger from Link - well, of course, there's not "may be" about it, or else there would not be a film, as while there might have been a market for her being kind to animals for nearly two hours, that doesn't make a horror movie.
At the time, Link was dismissed as a throwaway piece of nonsense, either too silly to be taken seriously or not gory enough to be embraced by horror fans who were burgeoning in number during this decade. However, as time went on it was stumbled across by film buffs who realised Franklin was worthy of further study: his biggest hit had been Psycho II, a better than it needed to be sequel to his mentor Alfred Hitchcock's most famous effort, but until he lost interest in thrillers and moved to television, Franklin had been on his way to a very respectable career, if not as a new Master of Suspense, then as someone who did not deserve to be forgotten amid the Ozploitation boom of the seventies and eighties. He actually put in some highly entertaining work that can easily be recommended to anyone looking for something of higher quality than the typical exploitation auteur.
Ray Berwick was the man who trained Link (or Locke, as the beast was called in real life), who in a neat connection had trained the avian actors in Hitchcock's The Birds twenty years previously, and if there was one thing all could agree on, he did a marvellous job. Link is splendidly creepy and amusing, intelligence dancing behind his eyes as he tries to stay one step ahead of Shue while she tries to stay alive. Whether haring around the mansion, lighting cigars to puff on, or in the scene everyone remembers uneasily, staring at Shue while she tries to have a bath, he was the film's real selling point, with apologies to the human leads. Though it had a slasher movie premise, and a revenge of nature focus, just like a million others, Link was more interested in suspense and the novelty of the power of an ape smart enough to understand when it's being conspired against, and to do something about it. It's well worth investigating, funny, exciting, and highly underrated.
[StudioCanal release Link on Blu-ray in a fully restored print with the following features:
New: Audio Commentary by Film Historian Lee Gambin and Film Critic Jarret Gahan
New: Interview with film programmer and horror expert Anna Bogutskaya
Deleted workprint scenes
Audio interview with director Richard Franklin
Jerry Goldsmith demo of the LINK theme
Original UK Theatrical teaser trailer.]