It's rather a strenuous life doing this stuff, I'll tell you, but every now and then you get acknowledgment. Like, say, a grotesque animated parody in the form of French critic Anton Ego. All summer long, I've had his little speech quoted at me: you know, the one about the natural sadism of people in the critic game? So lo and behold, how does Disney promote Ratatouille? "The Best Reviewed Film of the Year!" Despite what Ego says, nothing takes it out of you faster than writing a series of slams and pans.
The kind of film that really makes you want to stay up late writing about it, is the work with the fascinating tensions in it: between optimism and despair, between lust and disgust, and between the marketplace and the artist. Yet whenever I teach a class, the students always ask "What's the worst movie you've ever seen..." hoping that they'll hear some serious, foaming invective.
Just as the robin marks the arrival of April so does the turkey herald November. And I'll put it plain: I've seen some real damned bad 'uns in my time,, some real wattled, strutting, wobbling gobblers. Perhaps November is the time to memorialize just a few of these cinematic freezer-eagles. Say, for instance, The Vulture, a bonbon about strange black-feathered curse striking one of the most tedious rural towns in the British Isles. What can be more scary than a bus ride through a graveyard? Lots of things, I guess. In the beginning of The Vulture, the jolly driver waves aside the fears of his only passenger, claiming that all that talk of curses and vengeful ghosts nearby is just so much peasant superstition. (My friend Doctor Goulfinger commented that this is a conversational gambit subway conductors ought to pick up on when passing through the BART tunnels at Colma, or riding past those monster necropolises in Brooklyn: "Folks around here say this place is haunted at night, but I've never seen any walking dead. Yep, just the silence of the tomb. Positively no angry spirits! What the.... AGHHHHHHHHHHH!" ) Sure enough, when our female pigeon decides to walk around the graveyard she spies an empty grave from the 1760s; she hears the beating of wings and utters as good a scream as our since-forgotten scream-queen can utter.
We re-materialize in the interior of a British manor, where the new arrivals in the area are punishing the brandy and mulling over the previous girl who turning up injured, hair snow white, mute from shock in the local hospital. While she's recuperating, she's menaced by a sinister black-satin clad and slouch hatted church sexton (who, admittedly, could probably be sent away by one limp slap to the cheek).
Mysterious bird feathers and half-eaten sheep start appearing on the local beach, Is it all connected to the Easter Island cult, revived by a local sea captain who was buried alive back when King George was on the throne? The one was stuffed into a grave with his "strange pet" bird? You know, the buccaneer Francis Real? The one who promised vengeance on the family who'd had him entombed, starting with the youngest and working his way up to the oldest?
We'll have to say the answer is "maybe" since a visiting scientist (Robert Hutton, of The Slime People) more correctly diagnoses the attacks on some kind of matter-transference device: "nukular transformation! A disastrous scientific fact" he decides, doubtlessly because he just saw The Fly a night or two before.
If you like to watch middle-aged actors in smoking jackets and ascots, sitting around, lumbering to the sideboard to pour themselves a snort, and then then toddling back to the sofa, this film will have you on the edge of your seat. They talk, too: "No one in the district is using abnormal current...this is a creature that doesn't bear contemplating!"
The lead totterer is the one and only Broderick Crawford. One can imagine the feelings of a man who had won Best Actor for his prime performance in All The Kings Men less than 20 years before, now appearing in a film about a giant vulture. He hits his marks, a consummate professional; he puts maximum peevishness into a scene of refusing to keep his window closed at night, lest he be the next victim of this werebird. The now legendary sequence of Crawford rolling around in bed as if his lungs are bothering him, trudging up in his pajamas to the window, and ultimately being snatched away in a pair of yellow rubber claws, by what must have been a very physically fit bird...well, it all speaks for itself. Even more diverting are the appearances of Akim Tamiroff, positively not to be suspected as the villain, even if he has a foreign accent, a huge cloak and a pair of canes. As the two great thespian exchange glances, one imagines their thoughts:
"Akim, our parents should have whipped this acting nonsense out of us when we were children."
"Yes, Broderick, my resume is at last complete: Stanislavski, Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Welles, Godard...and now Lawrence Huntington."
When the werevulture is revealed--in a feathered suit worthy of any School for Special Children's ecology pageant--it's just the cherry on top of the cake. The frosting on top of that cherry is the last line from Hutton to his wife (Diana Claire): "A year from now, you'll forget about all this." Certainly: people being rapt away by 300 pound teleported vulture-men is just a small incident in life's rich pageant.
The movie is much, much worse than its reputation deserves. It hardly makes a ripple on worst-film-of-all time lists. I'm glad to see Andrew Kidd of scififilm.org lauds it as "one of the most dreadfully boring films ever made." Apparently it was partially financed by the Canadian government. This, despite the frequent and enervating exterior shots of the supposed setting, some Cornish seaside town of alcoholism-inducing gloominess, and to a train station, where a train which keeps arriving and disgorging minor actors. (This sucker must have had some British Rail money in it.) Kidd notes that the CBC has to run a certain amount of Canadian programming every week. The long-memoried will recall the McKenzie Brothers, SCTV's effort to put some genuine Canajians on TV for a change.) According to Kidd, late night Canadian TV ran this extremely bad movie made by bad people very frequently, possibly to helpless viewers in wintertime in Moose Jaw with no other entertainment option save Russian roulette.
Researching this pooch, I stumbled onto this essay by my hero Dr. Samuel Johnson claiming that he'd once heard a pair of vultures trying to figure out why humans kill each other in the battlefield. What's the point, except to give the vultures a good square meal? The philosophical birds decide that it's nature's way: people are really just two-legged vegetables. Funny, I'd heard the same thing about turkeys...