Discovering the Lost Cuckoo Bird
By Haden Guest
Reading time 11 Minutes
Before the advent of digital cinema
Before the advent of digital cinema 35mm and 16mm exhibition prints were highly prized and often clandestinely hoarded collectors items that only found their way into institutional archives through the proverbial back door. In recent years the retirement and death of film print collectors has resulted in a wave of discoveries as print collections are being offered for sale or donation to interested parties.
The assessment and gathering of collections is among the most labor intensive, crucial and rewarding tasks of the film archivist who must be prepared at all times, and often with only minimal notice, to excavate those barns, basements, warehouses, attics and movie theaters where stray film prints inevitably flock. Curiously, exhibition prints frequently remained in movie theaters long after they were screened- abandoned by their distributor, simply forgotten, or perhaps deliberately withheld by a projectionist “collector.” These accidental, frequently overlooked, collections have yielded important treasures and discoveries that have challenged, and at times even rewritten, accepted film history.
An unusual case in point is the collection retrieved a few years ago by the Harvard Film Archive from a shuttered historic cinema on the North Shore. Besides the usual assortment of trailers and incomplete prints that typically accumulate in projection booths was an intriguing group of 35mm prints all falling into that loose and provocative category of “exploitation”; pornography, erotic art house cinema and low budget genre films.
Among this unorthodox trove
Among this unorthodox trove one unrecognized title immediately jumped out, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds, which we quickly discovered was considered to be a lost film, known only through a luridly suggestive and collectable poster from its, as we would learn, very limited 1965 release. Enigmatically boasting of “Sadism, Quack Love, Horror,” the poster promises a sordid, sexually devious and murderous adventure shot on location in the Florida Everglades.
Since the worn but still reasonably good condition 35mm print was likely the only extant material for the film, the closest thing to the presumed lost negative, it was immediately designated as a preservation element to be treated with the utmost care and caution. A digital scan at a specialized lab allowed us to safely view The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds on the big screen and placed us in the rare position of watching a historic film unbiased by any kind of established critical opinion or consensus about either the film or its creator. What we saw proved to be even stranger, unexpected and challenging to evaluate than we had imagined: a feverish, crudely stylized, jaggedly uneven yet refreshingly authentic film that embodied an alternate vernacular mode of American independent filmmaking made completely off the grid but still engaged in a creative dialogue with both contemporary Hollywood and avant-garde cinema.
The film’s star, Bert Williams, was also its director, screenwriter and producer, the sole foray into full creative control for the hard working character actor who played bit parts in major and minor films and television series over an active forty year career beginning in the late 1950s.
The off-kilter narrative design and purpose of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is revealed right away by the film’s almost immediate abandonment of its skeletal genre premise, the story of an undercover cop targeting a bootlegging operation hidden in the Florida Everglades. Indeed, already in the film’s brief cold opening the detective has been unmasked and sent fleeing deep into the swamp with the bootleggers in hot pursuit. As if powered by the same flimsy skiff on which the detective steals into the Everglades, the film turns away from its promised chase narrative to adopt a floating sense of time and place, unmoored from the tighter plot structure that typically defines studio-era B-films.
Once the detective finds his way to the remote island ruled by the mysterious Cuckoo Bird Inn the film settles into a slower pace as it transforms from action thriller into a kind of hillbilly Gothic kammerspiel set principally within the cramped backwater hotel, with outdoor locations only sparingly used. Guided by hints of dark crimes and incestuous trauma, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds evokes a dangerously marginal world that also describes this forgotten film’s own precarious place on the furthest edge of independent cinema, occupying an occluded nether world somewhere under the underground.
With its hothouse setting
With its hothouse setting, lurching rhythm and gestures towards horror and sexploitation conventions, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is a UFO of a film that resists easy categorization. On one level Williams’ film offers a fever-dream fantasy of a Deep South driven by the darkest incestuous and murderous desires, a proto-Texas Chainsaw Massacre family bound together by murderous secrets, religious fervor and the taxidermied victims hidden behind the strange inn. At other moments, the film adapts a lyrical pose to become almost an avant-garde trance film best embodied in the figure of the naked, knife-wielding nymph who seems to channel the currents of surrealism and modern dance intertwined in the Cocteau-inspired school of Maya Deren and Curtis Harrington.
In the end, however, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is best understood as an exploitation film, designed to shock and to titillate, although even here the film takes an unexpected meandering path towards its seeming obvious goal. A sexploitation film without sex, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds maintains a chaste and surprisingly innocent film, especially when compared to the later films of John Waters and George Kuchar which it so clearly anticipates. Violence remains offscreen and the reveal of the stuffed corpses is almost comically undermined by the artisanal if not arts-and-crafts quality of the clearly hand made dummies.
Rather than defects, the straining seams, sagging make-up and overwrought performances that distinguish The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds together give the film a certain cockeyed charm. Indeed so sincere is the film’s desire to frighten by slowly revealing the taxidermied skeletons in the closet that the sympathetic viewer will forgive, if not embrace, the melting wrinkles on the strangely elfin innkeeper’s ever furrowed forehead or the dangerously low ceiling beam that Williams’ clumsy detective keeps almost bumping his head against.
Direct products of the film’s extremely low budget and status as a Florida independent film, the overt defects of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds also point to Williams’ own background as a character actor in Fifties Hollywood and a player in the Lower Florida dinner theater. Indeed, more stage than screen important are the raw and seemingly unrehearsed performances of the film’s little known actors who more often shout than speak.
Ultimately the flimsy costumes and primitive make up contribute to the rough, textured distance established between performer and character and the crudely unreal quality of the dark fantasy feverishly recounted by The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. Complimenting these unvarnished performances are the harsh, unnatural lighting and the high contrast black and white that gives the film an almost wood-block like texture carefully restored for the film’s new release and resurrection.
Not a masterpiece but a kind of folk art cinema, an outsider film if you will, The Nest Of The Cuckoo Birds is a refreshing reminder of how little we know about the furthest fringes of truly independent American cinema during the post-WWII era.
Haden Guest is Director of the Harvard Film Archive as well as Senior Lecturer, Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University