byNWR film review: The Nest of Cuckoo Birds
Low-budget exploitation fun10
Twists and turns7
Ryan Gumbley | On 10, Nov 2017Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Bert Williams
Cast: Bert Williams, Ann Long, Chuck Frankle, Jackie Scelza
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Anyone who values formal competence above all else should stay away from The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. The rest of us, however, can enjoy its fusion of genres, its hammy acting and its flitting moments of experimentation. There’s more going on in Bert Williams’ 1965 film than audiences at the time had any right to expect from a cheap exploitation movie. Before undergoing a restoration overseen by Nicolas Winding Refn, the film was considered lost. It’s now available for viewing by a wider audience via MUBI.
Johnson (Williams) is an undercover cop tasked with tracking down some small-time crooks operating in the Everglades. We see the woman he’s left behind in flashback, as he fawns over her and she wriggles around suggestively on their bed. It’s an early hint at the film’s exploitation credentials; it crams in as many crowd-pleasing elements as possible. And although the sex is never explicit, it’s an undercurrent throughout.
When he gets taken captive by the criminals and must swim through alligator-infested waters to free himself, it looks likely he’ll never be reunited with his lover again. Luckily for him, The Cuckoo Bird Inn offers him a place to stay after his ordeal. There, he meets the Pratt family. Mr and Mrs Pratt’s (Long and Frankle) hobbies include human taxidermy and chaining their daughter (Scelza) up in the attic. And with a mysterious knife-wielding killer on the loose, the film develops into a nightmarish tale of Gothic horror.
What’s most interesting and unexpected about all this is the experimentalism that accompanies the scenes involving the killer. Conventional editing goes out the window. Instead, the killer operates in shifting tableau form. Without seeing her move once, we watch her attack Johnson. It’s an interesting technique, which adds to the terror. Little more than a mask and a knife is used, but that formal experiment, combined with the screeching and jangling noises that interrupt Peggy Williams’s mellow score, spawns the film’s most frightening and impressive scene.
Shot in Florida, the film’s location is one of its greatest strengths. Director Bert Williams ran a workshop for experimental filmmakers there before making The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. Although his experimental edge is on display here, its focus on an authority figure from the city venturing out into the backwoods is shared with films by noted auteur directors of the time. Nicholas Ray shot Wind Across the Everglades (1958), a similarly swamp-based nightmare. And Elia Kazan made Wild River (1960), a melodrama full of violence and forbidden love. All three are concerned with the dangers of wandering out of town and into the unknown.
Whatever else The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds might be, it’s certainly a product of the mind of Williams, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in the movie. As far as low-budget, badly-acted exploitation movies go, this is one of the best. Its dull moments are easily outweighed by its inventive ones. Its bizarre charm occasionally hints at what we would today call the Lynchian.
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