It was the poster that caught my eye first. The weird Matisse-inspired graphics and the words “Sadism,” “Quack Love,” and “Horror” emblazoned in red made The Nest Of The Cuckoo Birds hard to pass up. Not to mention the fine print which read, “Voted primitive art film of the year.” You can’t judge a book by its cover, but The Nest Of The Cuckoo Birds delivers the goods, or at least most of the goods. It’s an awkward combination of Southern gothic horror like Mankiewicz’s, Suddenly Last Summer, mixed with early slasher films like Psycho. Imagine if Sam Fuller and George Romero tried to direct a Tennessee Williams play. The whole thing feels sort of cheap, dirty, and raw.
It begins as a sweaty noir set in a Louisiana bayou where an undercover cop named Johnson is working for a moonshiner named Doc. Officer Johnson’s cover is blown and he runs through the swamp, past lots of stock footage of alligators, until he is accosted by a mysterious young woman with a knife. She is naked except for a clear plastic mask that has a face painted on it. As soon as she appears, the film bursts out of its moody noir atmosphere and into horror.
Director Bert Williams must have seen Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s not that Williams’ film is overtly similar to Hitchcock’s but the struggle between Johnson and the masked woman is a formalist exercise in creative editing that had to be inspired by the editing in Psycho’s shower scene. Williams uses a series of frozen poses where the two characters stand in tableaux of a naked, knife-wielding assailant and grimy, mud-covered victim. There are a few frames with movement as well, but it all chops back and forth in quick succession while we hear a loud cowbell and a woman screeching.
The whole thing comes out of nowhere and is actually frightening. The musical soundtrack for the film is very strange. The cowbell and screeching are effective because they are not only aggravating sounds, but they are so unexpected and jarring. The music during the rest of the film wanders around between smooth, lounge jazz and a single set of bongos beating out a very simple rhythm. The jazzy stuff is completely inappropriate and severely detracts from what might have been some intense scenes. The bongos are not much better, but at least they are somewhat tense and do not work against what is happening on screen.
Johnson manages to escape his naked assailant and stumbles upon a creepy old hotel in the middle of the swamp. This is where we leave horror and noir behind and switch to Southern gothic. There’s a young woman locked in the attic, a creepy groundskeeper/assistant, and a domineering Christian woman who runs the whole place with an iron fist.
The setup and the ensuing twists are at times predictable, but there were a few things I didn’t see coming. The film craft could be described the same way. At one point Johnson is describing the knife-wielding woman he met on the beach to the religious matriarch, and as they talk, a wavy still of the naked woman projects across them as if they are sharing a vision. It’s very odd.
Bert Williams wrote and directed The Nest Of The Cuckoo Birds in 1965. It was the only film he ever made and was thought lost until a print was found, restored, and re-released in 2017. It is not your typical grindhouse fare. You can see that Williams was trying to build something with some substance and style, and sometimes he sort of succeeds.
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