Hope, according to Emily Dickinson, is the thing with feathers. But for some people, fear can be a thing with feathers, too. Put simply, birds can be scary as crap. Napoleon Dynamite clearly felt it, when he anxiously asked his employer "Do the chickens have large talons?"
This being Turkey Month, so to speak, and with the amusing, imaginatively silly Free Birds now in theaters, it seems like a good time to pay tribute to a few of pop culture's more memorable beastly birds. A pre-emptive note, however: I've chosen to omit The Birds, Hitchcock's near-masterpiece of 1963, not because it isn't a classic, but because its feathered fiends are experienced in the aggregate, as a massive collective menace, and I'm after big-ass birds, preferably with individual personalities. No disrespect intended. Please don't peck my eyes out.
1. "Man Friday"
Monster birds go back to the beginning in the human narrative tradition, to mythological wonders like the Persian Roc, the Hindu Garuda, the Eastern European Firebird, and the Native American Thunderbird, among many others. But it's possible that the monster bird enters the modern science-fiction era with "Aepyornis Island," an early H. G. Wells tale from 1894, in which the protagonist finds himself stranded on an atoll off Madagascar with a hatchling Aepyornis. This was an actual creature, the 10-foot-tall "elephant bird" which became extinct only a few hundred years ago.
The story, which may be read in its entirety online, is poignant, as the relationship between the castaway and the chick begins in friendship - the man names his feathered pal "Man Friday" after Robinson Crusoe's famous companion - but ends in terror and grief as the bird gradually grows to menacing monster status. Be forewarned, incidentally: the protagonist, a rather unlikeable fellow anyway, tosses around a particularly odious racial epithet a couple times.
2. The Food of the Gods
Speaking of Wells, big birds also figure prominently, although mostly in the first part, in his 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. The tale, about a scientifically developed food which causes wild overgrowth in the animals - and later in the people - that eat it, was adapted for the comics as early as this 1961 Classics Illustrated version, with its splendid cover.
It may be best known, however, for the riotous 1976 movie version directed by Bert I. Gordon, in which Marjoe Gortner must scrap with ponderous poultry.
Poor, game Ida Lupino is in this scene as well; at another point in the film she gets attacked by giant tomato worms. Yuck.
Director Gordon was notoriously obsessed with oversized animals and people (note that his initials spell out "B.I.G.") mostly because of the highly affordable special effects technique know as rear-projection; his other films include Earth vs. the Spider (1958), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1965), based (again ludicrously loosely) on another part of The Food of the Gods.
It's a pity that a more rigorous filmmaker, Ray Harryhausen, didn't get his crack at the tale. Adapting the Wells novel was one of many cherished projects of the stop-motion animation master that remained unrealized, although he did, at least, create this wonderful piece of conceptual art for it:
3. Harryhausen's Roc
Speaking of the great Harryhausen, he created a number of birds over his celebrated career, notably the big flightless badass who stomps around and makes ladies faint in 1961's Mysterious Island. Though we're told he's a product of the experiments of Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), he looks a lot like the huge apex-predator prehistoric birds of Cenozoic era.
He'd be a good seasonal candidate for this list, as he ultimately becomes dinner for the castaways, but it's hard to rate any feathered member of the Harryhausen fauna higher than the Angriest of all his Birds (and rightly so): The Roc, the awe-inspiring two-headed terror from my personal favorite Harryhausen movie, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
The Roc comes flapping back to her lofty nest, to the accompaniment of vertigo-inducing Bernard Herrmann music, to find that a couple of scurvy sea-dogs of Sinbad's crew have cracked open one of her eggs and are enjoying a drumstick from the sweet two-headed chick that emerged. Bad luck for those guys.
Haryhausen also created a memorable vulture in Clash of the Titans, and speaking of vultures...
4. The Vulture (I.)
Up there with The Green Goblin, The Lizard and Dr. Octopus on the list of Spider-Man's most venerable enemies is this criminal carrion-eater, who made his debut in 1963. But at a glance, he doesn't really seem eligible for this list, as he's not really a bird; he's just Adrian Toomes, a disgruntled old inventor from Staten Island, outfitted with a working bird suit. It never even struck me, come to that, as a particularly vulture-ish bird suit; with its brilliant green plumage, it seemed to me like he should be called The Parrot or The Quetzal or something. But I guess that would lack menace.
Anyway, there was at least one iteration of The Vultch that inarguably fits the category of bird-monster. In The Amazing Spider Man #127 and #128 (December 1973 and January 1974, respectively), Adrian Toomes is the victim of identity theft: Dr. Clifton Shallot mutates himself into a knockoff quasi-Vulture, the difference being that this time he actually has wings attached to his body. This would seem to meet the requirements for mad scientist status, as well.
5. The Vulture (II.)
Perhaps slightly neglected by bad-movie aficionados, this preposterous, mind-bogglingly straight-faced sci-fi/horror hybrid from 1967 offers a different beastly buzzard. American scientist Robert Hutton is certain that the murders and other strange occurrences around an English estate are the work of a half-man-half-vulture created by means of "molecular transmutation." The obtuse local authorities have the nerve to be skeptical of this, despite Hutton's assurances that he's being scientific. Boy do they end up with (vulture) egg on their faces.
This all may also have something to do with a bird-god of Easter Island Hutton refers to as "Manu Tara" (in reality, a local name for a species of tern; Hutton may be thinking of the bird-god "Make-make"). But I wasn't scientific enough to grasp how it related.
Broderick Crawford plays the Lord of the Manor; his fateful encounter with claws of the title character on his balcony is sort of side-splitting. Akim Tamiroff is charming as a sweet old local antiquarian who wears a big black cloak and walks on two canes. Hmm...