Directed By: Richard Franklin
Screenplay By: Everett De Roche
Story By: Lee Zlotoff, Tom Ackermann
Produced By: Richard Franklin
Cast: Elisabeth Shue, Terence Stamp
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 103 minutes
Review Date: August 20, 2010
From 1979-1993, the Cannon Group — headed by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — released a string of surprisingly successful low-budget films. They made stars of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, they lured bigger stars like Sylvester Stallone and Charles Bronson into their company, and they glommed onto huge franchise properties like Masters of the Universe, Superman, and Spider-Man. Despite the financial success of the films, the company almost always ran at a loss, and Cannon’s insistence on the lowest possible budget yielded bizarre but uniquely charming films. The goal of Cannon Corner is to pay homage to these films.
It shouldn’t work. That is the thought that kept going through my head while watching Link. Super-intelligent, evil primates are the stuff of cheesy Michael Crichton-inspired adventures like Congo. They have no purpose being featured in an oddly engrossing, tongue-in-cheek indie thriller. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Technically, Link is not a Cannon production. It was part of a slate of films that Cannon purchased on the cheap from a production company that went out of business. But the film looks and feels like it was made with Golan and Globus hovering over the director’s shoulder, fretting about the budget. It certainly features several hallmarks of Cannon productions: a low budget, one cheap but exploitable star, one international star whose appearance is kept short enough that his salary is kept in check, and an easily marketable hook.
In this case, the exploitable star was Elisabeth Shue. Just two years removed from The Karate Kid, she was still on the first upswing of her career. The international star was Terence Stamp. An actor who has always been capable of being menacing and seductive at the same time, he brings just a hint of class to the production. The marketing hook is the presence of the aforementioned, super-intelligent, evil primates. This might be where the filmmakers (and Golan-Globus) miscalculated. Depending on a viewer’s point-of-view, this can either be seen as demented fun or an act of extremely poor taste. I came down on the side of demented fun, but more wishy-washy viewers might recoil at the thought of cute animals being portrayed as cold-blooded villains.
Jane (Shue) is a grad student who takes a job working for Dr. Steven Phillip (Stamp), a brilliant professor who instructs his students in the differences and surprising similarities between humans and primates. As circumstances (and a thrifty budget) would have it, Dr. Phillip’s lab is located in a large estate on the coast of England, miles away from the nearest village. This means that Jane will be alone with the clearly unstable doctor and his three chimpanzees: Voodoo, Imp, and Link.
Voodoo is a female who is unable to reproduce, making her of little use to Dr. Phillip. Imp is the youngest of the trio. He is making strides in Dr. Phillip’s attempts to prove that chimps can be as smart as humans. Link is the oldest and smartest of the three. He also makes Dr. Phillip nervous. Having been purchased from a circus (where he was known for tricks like lighting and smoking cigars), Link serves as the de facto assistant to Dr. Phillip and the butler of the house. When Jane enters the picture, she upsets the balance of the household. Voodoo becomes extremely aggressive, Imp begins struggling in his studies, and Link quickly allies himself with the softhearted Jane.
One day, Dr. Phillip mysteriously disappears and Jane finds herself stuck in the house with the chimps. Lacking a car, she is cut off from the outside world. While she does her best to take care of the chimps, Link starts to show aggression towards her, asserting himself in the role of leader of the household. But Jane suspects that Link’s mind is working beyond simple animal instinct. He seems to understand how to manipulate situations to his advantage and does everything in his power to keep Jane from finding another way out of the house.
Director Richard Franklin and screenwriter Everett De Roche are veterans of the Australian exploitation scene, having worked on such cult favorites as Patrick, Long Weekend, and Roadgames. The common denominators in all of these films are fantastical stories shot on the cheap and put together with a wide streak of dark humor. Link continues that sensibility with Franklin stretching his modest production values with a gliding camera that moves through the house like a ghost. He also gets a lot of mileage out of chimp point-of-view shots, changing film speeds to create a shutter effect. The result lends a heavy amount of menace without needing a single shot of a chimp to sell the danger inherent in these scenes. An effectively campy and creepy Jerry Goldsmith score heightens the film’s off-kilter sensibilities, keeping the audience from ever feeling comfortable with any one tone.
The performances by Shue and Stamp also help to sell the outrageous premise. While she occasionally leans too far into earnestness, Shue manages to create a vulnerable and resourceful heroine out of what could have been a simple damsel-in-distress role. Stamp brings a touch of dirty old man to his mad scientist role as he subtly tries to put the moves on Jane (her cutting response to his advances is understated, but hilarious). They play well off each other, but Shue’s ability to stay natural opposite the chimps, goes a long way to keeping the film intentionally funny with moments of surprisingly well-executed suspense.
But no matter how surehanded Franklin is with the technical aspects and the actors, he can’t hide the most glaring problem with the film: Link is supposed to be a chimp, but as anyone who has seen Every Which Way but Loose can tell you, he is obviously an orangutan. Even more amusing, it appears that the orangutan’s hair has been dyed black to make him look more like a chimp. The effect is quite the opposite. Not only does he not look like a chimp, he looks unlike any primate put in a film. But this mistake ends up helping sell the film’s premise. Mentally, Link is supposed to be anything but a normal chimp. By having his unusual mind matched by an equally unusual appearance, he actually becomes menacing in the second and third acts with nothing more than a deadpan stare.
Like most low-budget suspense films, some of the air is let out of the balloon as the third act turns into a standard survival-horror exercise. Even with this letdown, Shue manages to hold on to her dignity and Franklin is able to pull off several shots that contain more dry wit than the entire scripts of many supposed comedies currently in theaters. A great climax and priceless final shot bring the film to a sublime close and I was left sitting in the dark, wondering just how the hell the movie had worked at all. It’s a thought I find myself having during many Cannon productions. All production technicalities aside, Link stands with the best the company has to offer.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.