Monday, May 26, 2014
So Awful It's Awesome: The Vulture (1967)
My friends... Can your heart stand the shocking facts of atomic vultures from out of the past?
I never saw this 1967 British-made horror movie as a kid; I was in my 30s, I believe, and it was on a late-night picture show on television. I ended up falling asleep on it periodically, but I saw enough to later recall that it was weird and mostly terrible, yet strangely atmospheric, featuring a character or two that damn near gave me the creeps. The Vulture has never been released domestically on VHS or DVD, and since the early 90s, I've never seen it listed on broadcast television. For years, I've been hoping to catch it again just to satisfy my occasional (certain of my acquaintances might say frequent) craving for bizarre entertainment. Just today, I discovered that the entire movie is available to watch for free on YouTube, and though the video quality is none too great, the film is there, all right, in all its ridiculous glory.
To describe the plot might suggest that I have reverted to my college days when my fondness for mind-altering substances ran rather high. (The statute of limitations for such things has expired, right?) Regardless, I'll run through it here, and there be spoilers. On a rainy night in Cornwall, a lady gets off a bus and takes a shortcut through an old graveyard to get home. As she passes though, a gravestone falls over and something that makes nasty screeching sounds comes out and takes to the air. Lady ends up in hospital, hair turned all white. The police pay a visit to local nobleman Brian Stroud (Broderick Crawford) to inform him that the ruined grave belonged to one Francis Real, an 18th century practitioner of black magic who was buried alive by the Strouds' ancestors. Stroud's niece, Trudy (Diane Clare), and her husband, Eric Lutens (Robert Hutton), an American nuclear physicist, decide to investigate this strange case, and they learn that Francis Real revered the Easter Island god, Tongata Manu, a half-vulture, half-human creature, and even owned a vulture as a pet, which — along with a crapload of Spanish doubloons — was buried with him. The police, and most everyone else, conclude that the grave was despoiled by someone who was aware of the old legend and intended to relieve the grave of its treasure. Lutens, on the other hand, comes to the quick conclusion that a sophisticated nuclear experiment has revived the long-dead Real and transmutated him and the vulture into a half-man, half-bird monster bent on killing the descendents of the family that buried him alive.
No one believes Lutens, of course, except Trudy and a good friend of the Strouds — the elderly, kindly, crippled Professor Koeniglich (Akim Tamiroff), who is, coincidentally, one of Francis Real's direct descendents. Sadly, Brian Stroud and his brother, Edward (Gordon Sterne), are brutally murdered, the only clue left behind some vulture feathers. Occasionally, the local church's creepy sexton (Edward Caddick) appears for the sole purpose of warning everyone against interfering with this murderous, supernatural force from the past. Lutens believes that the guilty party can be tracked down by discovering whether anyone has been using vast amounts of electricity to carry on the suspected nuclear experiments. As it turns out, the guilty party is none other than the elderly, kindly, crippled Professor Koeniglich. According to Lutens, the nice professor had intended only to resurrect Real to pick his brain about how they did things back in the day, but Koeniglich hadn't counted on the vulture being in the coffin. Thus his experiment transformed him into a half-human, half-bird monster, bent on wreaking vengeance against the Strouds.
In a very brief scene in the final minutes of the movie, the vulture-man Koeniglich appears and menaces Trudy. Lutens, just in the nick of time, arrives and shoots him dead. Rather than preserve the creature's body so he might prove his wild theory correct, he takes the body out to sea in a rowboat and dumps it overboard. Then he and Trudy go back to New York on a ship.
It's probably fair to say that The Vulture is one big plot hole. By far, its most appealing aspect is that it drips with eerie atmosphere. Since I first saw the movie all those years ago, the creepy sexton has stood out in my memory, and though the character is essentially pointless, his manner does provide an authentic shudder. The story is part mystery, part science fiction, part traditional horror. Apart from sheer zaniness of the plot, though, there are also numerous unintentional laughs, such as the "driving theme" that plays whenever a character is in a car. It's a rambling, orchestral motif with a shunting rhythm, like a train passing over the rails. Dr. Koeniglich is really too sweet to make a convincing murderous vulture, and apart from his ludicrous bird outfit, he doesn't even get any scary facial makeup. He's just too damn cute.
So, if after all that, you feel you're up to it, you can watch The Vulture right on YouTube. Here it is below, in fact, Scream away, do.