Sunday, October 29, 2017


Bert Williams (1922-2001) was a Florida-based actor whose career reached back to episodes of SEA HUNT and THE WILD WOMEN OF WONGO. In 1965, he rolled the dice to become a multi-hyphenate by writing, producing, directing, starring in and even editing and partly photographing an obscure and much sought-after project called THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS. The film got next to no exposure but it became the stuff of legend when a quirky, artistic-looking ad for the film ran in one of those old Film Market issues of VARIETY, promising a film that delivered "Sadism," "Horror," "Stark Naked Drama" and (most appetizing of all) "Quack Love." Besides all this, there was a notation stating that the picture had been named "Primitive Art Film of the Year," though without mention of by whom. It was one of those things: anyone who had seen the ad and heard it mentioned by someone else who had seen it bonded to them like a brother. The film was assumed to be lost, and some even assumed it might never have been completed - though it now appears that it did receive at least one playdate because the only known print was located in an abandoned movie theater. In the last couple of years, other surviving materials on the film turned up in a much-ballyhooed eBay auction, which I assume is where Nicolas Winding Refn comes in.

Refn - reknowned Danish director of such films as THE NEON DEMON and DRIVE and the winner of a similar eBay auction that left him the owner of Andy Milligan's celluloid rarities and scraps - has now unveiled THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS absolutely free - as the opening salvo of his forthcoming streaming site, which premiered last night in piggy-back fashion on the art film streaming site MUBI. Dale Berry's HOT THRILLS AND WARM CHILLS (1967), restored with materials from the Something Weird Video collection, will be premiering in a few days. Refn's channel will be premiering independently next February.

Any connoisseur of the exploitation cinema's strangest arcana will want to investigate THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS - a title whose plurality, its poster suggests, was a last-minute idea that sort of spoils what should have been its biggest surprise. According to the IMDb, the title of its original script was THE VIOLENT SICK. Williams (who bears a distracting resemblance to Donald Trump, as he would look without the elaborate comb-over) plays Johnson, an undercover cop who fails in his attempt to bust some moonshiners in the Everglades but manages to escape brutalized captivity by swimming to safety through gator-infested waters. Before he passes out from exhaustion, he witnesses one of his pursuers being knifed to death by a horrific, chimerical murderess - blonde, beautiful and naked, save for a plastic mask. He awakens in the Cuckoo Bird Inn, a concealed bed-and-breakfast run by Mr. and Mrs. Pratt, who have the funniest, most hostile hospitality seen onscreen since THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Before Johnson can ask a single question, he is warned by Mrs. Pratt - a former actress, she boasts - to mind his own business and respect their covert way of doing things. Being a cop, Johnson can't quite manage this and discovers that his cantankerous, volatile hosts keep their beautiful, blonde, teenage daughter Lisa (Jackie Scelza) chained in a room at the top of the house like some kind of hotcha Saul Femm, because she's supposed to be "mad." Though she's half his age or more, Johnson warms up to Lisa, hovering over her, touching her, giving her little kisses "for luck" after he makes plans to help her escape.

What sounds like a fairly straightforward crime picture equally indebted to Tennessee and Charles Williams takes some abrupt, trap-door detours into bizarre, expressionistic, Southern Gothic horror (and even a graphic gore sequence or two) as the Pratts' peculiar lifestyle is cracked open to show just how sick a family living this remotely from society can be. What we ultimately learn is not all that unexpected, but there is value in the telling and a measure of delight even in the film's sometimes incoherent construction. The appearances of the aforementioned murderess are accompanied by some inspired, screeching sound effects and sudden flurries of artful editing, which suggest an attempt on Williams' part to cop something of PSYCHO's shower murder's technique; however, he throws in the curve of holding the action in frame perfectly still, so that time is literally suspended as the viewer is bombarded with fabricated, dynamic "still" images. There is a good deal of the film that is artless, lame, at times verging on agony, but it's all unpredictably organized with shufflings of original material and ancient stock footage that are unaccountably striking, dream-like, and like little else the movies have shown us. This isn't one of those square peg movies that refuse to fit into the round holes of conventional cinema; it's a shape that doesn't quite have a name. As I watched, I was occasionally reminded of some other movies - POOR WHITE TRASH, NIGHT TIDE, THE INTRUDER (for its coarse look and technique more than anything else), ALICE SWEET ALICE, EATEN ALIVE, the aforementioned THE OLD DARK HOUSE (the 1932 version, which I had just seen earlier the same day, which made it easier to identify the shared story points), Ivan Varnett's THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1950) and THE DUNGEONS OF HARROW - but only in flashes. It's ultimately its own curious, lopsided, intermittently wondrous thing.
One of the film's most indelible touches is the original music score by Williams' wife Peggy, which consists of only two songs, "In The Nest of the Cuckoo Bird Inn" and "Lisa" - both accompanied by a reverberating, pre-Lynchian electric guitar and avant-garde percussive, plucking effects. In an online thread responding to last night's premiere, I read a posting by a guitarist who said he couldn't resist picking up his own guitar and playing along with it. I can fully understand this; the film's music, though probably its most purely enjoyable, competently developed layer, has so much open space that it feels still under construction and invites an extra hand.

Refn has chosen his moment well, on the cusp of Halloween, and he has called attention to it with the equivalent of a Dead Sea Scroll of exploitation cinema. It's an audacious introduction for, to say the least, and bodes well for curiosities yet to come. Of course, one can't help wishing for download and hard copy availability of material this unusual and coveted, and perhaps these will eventually be among the surprises in store.

(c) 2017 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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