THE NEST OF THE CUCKOO BIRDS (1965) – Halloween Month continues here at Balladeer’s Blog with a review of this low-budget, black & white bomb which played a few theaters in 1965 then was considered lost until 2017. Florida’s Bert Williams produced, wrote, directed and starred in this very strange film which strives for “Psycho Meets Tennessee Williams” levels but falls more into territory occupied by the likes of Spider Baby and Manos, The Hands of Fate.
Williams’ wife Peggy sang the title song, which inspired a later version by the Cramps, believe it or not. Peggy also sang the closing song Lisa.
Our auteur Bert Williams plays Johnson, a Liquor Control Department Agent aka “Revenuer” in the slang of deep south moonshiners. He is sent on an assignment into the Everglades to infiltrate and bring down a violent gang of moonshiners who make their own bootleg whiskey via their still on one of the scattered pieces of solid land found in the swamps of the Florida Everglades.
After an absurdly irrelevant recollection to his chief about a lost love of his from long ago, Agent Johnson departs on his mission.
Johnson’s cover is blown, and he flees into the swamplands to escape the bootleggers, who are led by their murderous boss called Doc. Half wading and half swimming, our exhausted protagonist arrives after dark at another isolated and uncharted little “island” amid the Everglades. He is nearly stabbed to death by a naked woman wearing a wig and a bizarre mask, a woman he at first mistakes for a statue.
The Revenue Agent manages to outfight and escape the woman in an utterly ridiculous fast-motion scene which could use the Benny Hill Theme as accompaniment. Johnson stumbles upon the tiny island’s lone structure – a dilapidated hotel called the Cuckoo Bird Inn, run by some of the strangest people this side of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Eaten Alive. Needless to say, the
hilarity horror is just beginning.
The inn is run by Mrs Pratt (Ann Long), a twice-widowed fading flower of a woman who was a showgirl years ago. She overacts to a degree that likely hadn’t been seen since 1930s exploitation films like Reefer Madness or Cocaine Fiends or Tomorrow’s Children.
When Mrs Pratt isn’t yelling or waving her arms around she’s trying to seduce Agent Johnson, who can’t quite get in the mood, and not just because of how bonkers Pratt behaves. He’s understandably distracted by the continuing efforts of the Naked Nutcase who tried to kill him earlier and who strikes a few more times during his stay at the inn. Our hero can’t flee just yet because Doc and his gang are likely still searching for him out in the swamp. (By the way for my review of five horror films centered around nudity click HERE.)
Mrs Pratt’s young daughter Lisa (Jackie Scelza) is a blonde beauty whom she frequently keeps chained by the ankle to an iron ball in one of the bedrooms. Lisa absorbs a lot of resentment from her mother, who obviously can’t handle the way her daughter’s beauty is a constant reminder of her own fading charms.
Twisting the knife on that is the fact that one of Pratt’s late husbands was having an affair with the sultry Lisa, and the older lady lays all the blame on the girl. But is Lisa the innocent lass that she seems or is she as homicidally violent as Virginia was in Spider Baby? Her mother unchains her on cloudy or moonless nights, since Lisa is too frightened of the dark to run away at such times.
Harold (Chuck Frankle), the Caretaker of the inn, is nuts or mentally challenged himself and does as Mrs Pratt orders. His oddball beard makes him look like he escaped from the set of Brigadoon. When we viewers learn that he’s a former taxidermist we can immediately guess what happened to Mrs Pratt’s former husbands and what may happen to Johnson, but filmmaker Bert Williams apparently thinks we are still in the dark.
Ultimately, after spending most of the movie fending off Mrs Pratt’s advances and trying to avoid being slain by the masked nudist who comes and goes like the Phantom of the Opera, Johnson thinks he’s been found by the bootlegger Doc. It turns out, however, that the criminal was killed by the masked slasher lady and has been taxidermed and stuffed by Harold.
Our main character stumbles into the hotel’s chapel and discovers that all the members of the congregation are likewise dead, stuffed dummies preserved in various stages of decay. It becomes apparent that this has been the fate of all the few and far between lodgers who visited the Cuckoo Bird Inn over the years.
The Naked Nutcase in the mask makes one last attempt to kill Johnson, but, in a hilarious bit of anticlimax, she accidentally falls on a meat hook and dies. The agent unmasks her and reveals her to be Mrs Pratt.
A side effect of Johnson’s climactic confrontations with Pratt and Harold has been the start of a fire, and our hero escapes the building with the now liberated Lisa at his side. From a safe distance they watch the fire burning a building that is OBVIOUSLY too big and too many floors high to have been the same building we’ve spent the movie in. I guess stock footage was used or maybe Bert Williams just incorporated some unrelated film he had made of a building burning in the night.
The End. I’m not kidding. Some IMDB reviewers who claim they knew people who worked on The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds say that some footage was lost in the Everglades and the production team couldn’t afford to reshoot it. This is certainly possible and the lost footage may have included a more complete ending, because Johnson and Lisa are clearly exchanging dialogue which we are not privy to as the movie ends. I suppose that missing footage might have tied in the pointless flashback about Agent Johnson’s lost love, too.
An alternate theory I have is that maybe the woman from Agent Johnson’s past was just an elaborate red herring to make viewers wonder if SHE was the masked and wigged female slasher. In the flashback segment about Johnson’s romance with her we can see that she was certainly very buxom. That being the case, given the cartoonishly huge breasts on the illustrated version of the film’s slasher woman on the movie posters maybe Bert Williams DID intend to mislead audiences into suspecting that she was really the masked killer, having caught up with our hero after all those years.
Nicolas Winding Refn has released The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds on his own streaming service, and while I applaud him for that, it is a bit hard to believe how much depth the writers at his site read into this mess of a movie. They even claim the comically huge building that burns at the end is an example of intentional surrealism on Bert Williams’ part.
Using that overly generous critical approach even The Ghosts of Hanley House could be interpreted as a brilliant piece of cinema. Their words of praise for The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds made me wonder how many low-budget quickies those critics have seen.
I will certainly agree with reviewers who feel that it would have been interesting to see further movie efforts from Bert Williams to see if he would have improved as a filmmaker or would have become just another cult figure in the Psychotronic Movie Valhalla.
An ad has survived in which Bert was trying to raise money for future film projects. The titles and slim details he provided can’t help but tantalize fans of bad and weird movies. Those projects and Williams’ descriptions of them:
THE VIOLENT SICK – “An Everglades exploration into the intrigue and violence of lost people.”
DEATH WATCH 28 – “28 watched and did nothing to help. The poignant film of a girl’s tragic murder. Based on today’s realities.” This one I would have liked to see in completed form. It seems like it would have been Bert Williams’ take on the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964. She was 28 years old and it was long said that 38 apartment dwellers failed to call for help while Kitty was being attacked. Bert may have been playing with 28 and 38 to help “fictionalize” his adaptation.
THE KNIFE FIGHTERS – “(M)ost unusual western ever conceived with many new twists. New Action Greatness.”
ADVENTURE TO TREASURE REEF – “The modern Treasure Island Adventure Thriller for young people.”
THE ACCIDENT – “Another Hot Tin Roof clatter. A 3 act play, all happening in 3 hours of Life.”
No matter how those flicks would have turned out, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds deserves more love as a potential Golden Turkey. As of this writing it has only 5 user reviews at IMDB.
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