Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Vulture (1967)

Being a monster obsessed person for the majority of my youth (I blame King Kong mostly), I was, of course, also obsessed with dinosaurs (again, I blame King Kong).  There wasn’t a book concerning dinosaurs at my local library that I didn’t check out multiple times (including, but not limited to, Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals by Darlene Geis and R.F. Peterson, the book brandished by Harry Holcombe in King Kong Versus Godzilla).  Since dinosaurs are real-life monsters, I loved them all to some degree or another, even the goofier ones (come on, Diplodocus, what is up with you, anyway?).  Sure, I enjoyed the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, but I was much more inclined toward something like the Anklyosaurus, with its death-tank-esque build (yes, I know they were herbivores). 

Another of my go-to dinosaurs was the bizarre Archeopteryx.  This beast wasn’t large and menacing like a T-Rex.  It wasn’t built like the proverbial brick shithouse.  It was essentially a small bird with the head of a thunder lizard.  And yet, it fascinated me, perhaps because of the duality of it, the overt evolutionary look of it.  Like with the Mighty Men and Monster Maker drawing toy (look it up) I spent way too much time with (yet somehow never enough), the Archeopteryx was a hodgepodge of lizard and bird, and the dichotomy of its two sides formed something of a gestalt for me.  Sure, this little guy would never dominate the dinosaur world, but it had its own place in the pecking order (sorry), and I think it’s an important one.  It’s the same attraction I had to films like Lawrence Huntington’s The Vulture (a film I was dying to see when it played on late night television back in the day).  However, the gap between expectation and reality with the Archeopteryx is much narrower for me than with this film.

Walking through a cemetery on a dark and stormy night, Ms. Ellen West (Annette Carrell) witnesses the grave of Francis Real open up (which we get to see) and unleash some monstrosity (which we don’t get to see) into the sky, cackling all the way.  The local Vicar (Philip Friend) doles out some convoluted back story about Real, his beloved pet bird (let’s just assume it’s a vulture), and his hatred for the Stroud family (oh, and a cask of gold coins).  Cue Eric Lutens (Robert Hutton), a “nuke-u-lar” scientist who has married into the Stroud family, and has a rather obsessive fascination with solving the mystery of what’s going on (the viewer does not have to strain as much to put this together, I assure you) before his family all wind up dead.

The primary theme this film focuses on is the idea of myths and superstitions.  The film’s opening sequence pretty much nails this home with the bus driver warning Ms. West not to walk across the fields and through the cemetery at night because of all the ghosts.  The story about Real and the Strouds is local folklore, and the people of the community have no problem believing that Real’s vengeance from beyond the grave can and will come to pass.  Eric posits that Real may have visited Easter Island at some point, because the indigenous people there have a myth about a bird man (Manutara, which, from what I was able to gather, is more of a sacred bird of the island than a cool monster/deity); some thin reasoning, to be sure.  What’s kind of interesting is that, for as much of a man of science as Eric claims to be, he’s pretty damned quick to suggest that an experiment must surely have created some monster bird (it is, after all, the most logical explanation; I mean, what else could possibly turn a woman’s hair white overnight?).  Equally interesting is Eric’s desire to find and kill the creature rather than study it (he is, after all, a horror film protagonist in the Sixties).  Some scientist.  But you get the feeling that Eric wants to believe in these things.  Sure, he plays around with “nuke-u-lar” power at his day job, but his heart’s desire is to explore the deeper mysteries of the world (read: monsters).  Tolferro, Cornwall, where the film is set, is to Eric, “where life goes on undisturbed.”  In other words, this is a place where monsters can exist, because pesky things like science aren’t as prevalent there as superstition is, and Eric buys right into it.  In this world, legends not only trump facts; they create reality.

The Vulture is one of those movies that for me brought up the eternal question, “what does the villain do when he is offscreen?”  Has this quandary ever occurred to you?  This is due largely in part to the structure of the narrative.  The antagonist means so little outside of his role as an occasional threat, and his actions are so curiously limited that you really have to wonder what else could possibly be occupying his time?  I mean, why doesn’t the titular monster simply take out the Stroud family in one fell swoop when he has them exposed?  The reason is because the film is segmented into vignettes whose sole purpose is to give us a cheap thrill and pick off characters individually so that the film isn’t just a half an hour long.  Sometimes in films like this, we’re given some specious reasoning as to why the villain doesn’t just slay his enemies all at once (he’s regrouping, he’s injured, he had to file his taxes, whatever).  With a film like this, however, the lack of any explanation sets the viewer’s mind adrift into the realm of pondering.

I have to say, I enjoyed the film’s first half, even with its lack of monster sightings (outside of some humongous prop bird legs) and its mountains of inane chatter.  There’s something about a film taking its time, trying to build a story and a sense of expectation for seeing its creature, that I enjoy immensely (even when the characters act like idiots).  That said, the endless dialogue scenes which leap to such far gone conclusions and are repeated so often in this film eventually wear thin.  Add to this the fact that there is absolutely no mystery as to who the monster is (this despite one of the reddest red herrings in the history of cinema which goes absolutely nowhere), and you’re left with nothing but the slog to finally see the fiend.  The kicker is that even when we do see him, we still don’t, and the overall effect is simultaneously weak and ridiculous (this in a film built upon ridiculousness).  The climax is anticlimactic enough (it just sort of happens), but what the characters do afterward in the film’s denouement is pretty baffling, even while the characters continue to talk and talk and dispense even more exposition.  And then the film just ends.  For as much as the film tries to do, it simply doesn’t pull it off, and yet, I still found myself okay with the vast majority of it.  Figure that one out.

MVT:  I really like the idea of an oddball monster like this one created through science and myth.  It’s an intriguing concept that provides the vast majority of The Vulture’s charm.

Make or Break:  In line with the MVT, I like the opening sequence for what it does while showing us almost nothing.  Had the rest of the movie been as clever (or at least less concerned with talking), it could have been something special.

Score:  6.25/10

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