A man on the run. A woman in chains. Cannibals in the swamps. Preserved corpses in a chapel. And a mysterious, naked female spectre slaying men who wander too close to her riches. All of this would make a much better film than The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds. Technically, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds has all of these things, but in theory it never feels or accepts these things. The narrative unfolds in a hallucination of earnest indifference – so much so, that when the nasty bits come they lose any visceral quality they could have had. It is a film of such remarkable ineptitude that you mostly view it in slack-jawed awe, and when it has flashes of brilliance (and it does) you wonder for the briefest of moments whether you stumbled onto genius. The next shot always proves otherwise.
This took me at least 15 minutes of reflection while watching the movie to figure out so I’ll spare you the confusion: Johnson (writer/director/star/wunderkind Bert Williams) is a cop hot on the heels of some dangerous moonshiners when he is almost caught and escapes into the Florida swamps. In the retreat from gangsters and escape from the gators, he sees a naked woman – white as porcelain – dancing in the deep wood. Exhausted and mildly confused, he stumbles right into the Cuckoo Bird Inn, overseen by Abe Lincoln’s curmudgeonly inbred second cousin (twice removed) Harold (Chuck Frankle), and a Frau Farbissina archetype MRS. Patt (Ann Long). We never see an expository shot of the Inn, but it’s apparently large, although we only see about three rooms; one of them keeps Mrs. Patt’s secret daughter Lisa (Jackie Scelza) locked away from prying male eyes. Trying to escape from the Cuckoo Inn takes more effort than Johnson realizes, especially when the naked white woman keeps popping up in the dead of night.
It’s amazing how the film synopsis sounds way better than the film actually is – it takes effort to underperform to this level. According to Brian Albright’s “Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990“, the film was produced by the so-called Experimental Camera Workshop, located in an around Miami, Florida. One would hope, then, that any deficiency in The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is purposeful, but this assumption only leads to more confusion. Bert Williams’ character Johnson never once looks anyone in the eye – every conversation, and wholesale scenes, are filled with dialogue that makes little sense, said by people who never look each other in the face. There is one amazing moment where Johnson and Patt try to explain the importance of having tea together to Harold, and their banal dialogue is intercut with split-second closeups of Harold looking confused. If it is purposeful, it is prodigious avant-garde, all right.
What does come across are two or three single shots of surprising ingenuity – when Johnson is hit on the head, the film itself seems to skip reels with the tail end of scratchy film stock. When the porcelain woman kills her first victim on camera, the murder occurs in a quick series of the actress posing in still shots, yet the film stock is still running, although she holds still. These quick-cut, moving pictures actually are pregnant with shock and doubt – and are far and away the best part of the entire film. The score for The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds’ was apparently thanks to Fulford Methodist Church organist Peggy Williams and the Florida Skyways Hotel house band, The Four Bits. The theme song pops up in the worst possible spots, while the rest sounds like Ennio Morricone on the Bongo Drums, doing the Goron’s Theme Song from The Legend of Zelda. So, I loved it.
But the lynchpin of The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is the clear mastermind, Bert Williams. One would say he is clearly miscast and underprepared (some scenes he appears to forget his lines and make them up as he goes along, because, you know, film stock is expensive and you only get one take), but that would probably be disingenuous to his creative vision for the whole project. I have no doubt in my mind this is a fully auteuristic film, made by someone who truly cared, and shot in alignment to his fullest creativity. Johnson flails in the swamp with little grace; thrashes his arms in torment when he gets emotional; darts his eyebrows like a redneck John Belushi in razor-sharp confusion when he encounters taxidermied corpses and dreaded ceiling beams in the dark. Did I mention Johnson has a sexy girlfriend (Sherry Sax) pining for him back home? Of course he does – Johnson is the Floridian Superman. The high level of ego is so perfectly matched by the creative instinct, and so wildly unmatched by creative quality, it reminded me of Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, with only a slight step downward in overall charm. At least you feel sorry for Flagg.
As the film ends, it is a kind of relief. A song cuts in, completely muting the reconciliation scene that was clearly filmed (their mouths are moving, but nothing is heard), and there is a slight pain of loss. Slight. That there is no more of this glorious inept delirium to witness. Bless you, NWR and the Harvard Film Archive, for showing us that any film can be appreciated, even if it is incompetent. Blissfully so.