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…
6. The Eagle in Burn, Witch, Burn
Well, that’s what it was called in America, anyway. In the UK this well-done chiller was known by the more genteel title Night of the Eagle…
In any case it was an adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s ’40s-era novel Conjure Wife. It’s about a professor (Peter Wyngarde) who realizes that he owes his rising academic career at least in part to his wife’s practice of witchcraft on his behalf. On the downside, there’s another witch on campus who isn’t necessarily such a booster, and she does something startling to an eagle gargoyle.
Those who have never seen the film, by the way, might want to consider watching the whole thing before you watch the climactic scene above. It’s worth it.
7. Tchar of the Skorr
The world of Saturday morning cartoons had its share of bird monsters. I recall a Scooby-Doo adventure in which the gang and their new pals the Addams Family were terrorized from above by a giant vulture. In the end (spoiler alert!) it turns out to be a disguised aircraft piloted by an old couple from the beginning of the episode, trying to frighten the Addams clan away from the area. A shocking twist, I know.
Maybe the coolest looking vintage cartoon bird creature, however, comes from one of the more unusual episodes of the ’70s-era animated version of Star Trek: “The Jihad,” written by Stephen Kandel. Kirk and Spock are part of a diverse team on a secret mission to recover some McGuffin needed to prevent an interplanetary holy war. Also on the team is a strapping huntress who takes a shine to Kirk (who can’t seem to handle such a strong woman; he uncharacteristically blows her off), along with a burly, Gorn-like reptile-man with a horn on his head, and a kvetchy little eight-limbed bug-man who’s a whiz at picking locks.
And then there’s Tchar (voiced by James Doohan), a proud, imposing representative of the Skorr, a race of avian warriors especially renowned for the ability to raise huge armies very quickly. Presumably their hens can lay at least an egg a day.
8. The Giant Claw (1957)
The title character in this epic is an avian monster “the size of a battleship.” This squawking mega-fowl, who snaps parachutists out of mid-air as if they were Beer Nuts, is played by a very Muppet-like puppet with buggy eyes and a tuft of down on its head that looks like a sad, failed mohawk, or maybe a comb-over after a windstorm. Of all the terrible monster effects of the ’50s, it’s possible that this is the most hilariously unconvincing, yet there’s no denying that this beaked behemoth has a pungent personality.
The film, which also stars the beautiful Mara Corday, is available on the Sam Katzman Icons of Horror Collection.
He-Man’s falcon was, at first, just a falcon, and, as it happened, male. But as the Masters of the Universe mythos grew more and more complex, Zoar magically switched genders, becoming a form of the Sorceress of Grayskull.
Skeletor also had a falcon, called Screeech, which came complete with onomatopoetic third “e.” The good and evil raptors of MOTU in their plastic forms were the same toy, just differently painted. Maybe there’s some allegorical profundity there.
10. Resentful pheasant in Young Sherlock Holmes
In honor of the season, it seems only right that at least one of our belligerent birds should be in a plucked and already-cooked state. There’s that current commercial for Tums, in which a chicken threatens his tormentor with martial arts, which in this case is an allegory for heartburn.
But even more memorable is the scene from Barry Levinson’s 1985 Holmes variation, in which a tasty-looking fowl revolts against the diner about to tuck into it. If you’re wondering how such a bizarre thing can happen in the presumably hyper-rational world of Sherlock Holmes, by the way, it’s a blow-dart-induced hallucination.
11. “That’s a big chicken…”
This scene from Woody Allen’s slapstick sci-fi classic Sleeper (1973) also seems to have been inspired by The Food of the Gods. But, unlike the bird with whom Marjoe Gortner goes toe-to-talon, the chicken at the end of this clip is, at least, supposed to be funny.
12. South Park “Turkey Butt” for Nintendo 64
Turkeys aren’t the first species that leaps to mind to make up a Resident Evil-style menacing horde. But marauding turkeys, mutated by a comet that passes through the title mountain town, do just fine as targets for Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny – the player chooses which kid to be – who pelt them with weapons like snowballs, toy machine guns or Terrance and Phillip fart grenades as they skulk through the grounds of a Renaissance Faire.
Trey Parker is reported to have disliked this game, citing the turkey level as the biggest problem. But the video of it is sort of mesmerizing to watch.
13. Herschell the Turkey Guy from Blood Freak (1972)
Of all pop-culture bird monsters, however, the title character of this gory Florida-made zero-budgeter from 1972 is surely the most appropriate for November. Herschell (Steve Hawkes) is a cool studly guy on a motorcycle who picks up Angel, an extremely cute young woman who’s having car trouble. He gives her a lift home, where he meets her even cuter sister Anne and Anne’s disreputable druggie friends. Angel is a Christian who eschews drugs and promiscuous sex; Anne is given to no such prudery, and she soon corrupts Herschell.
Herschell goes to work at a turkey farm, where he agrees to be a guinea pig by eating the meat of turkeys that have undergone secret government experiments. Given the wisdom of this decision, it’s a little hard to sympathize with him when he turns into a blood-drinking mutant with the head of a turkey.
I’m not doing Blood Freak justice with this description, I fear. This is truly – truly – one of the most queasy, weird and awful movies you’ll ever see, though it’s hard to say whether the queasiness, weirdness, or awfulness is predominant.
In the “awfulness” category are such joys as the performances of the two guys who work with our hero at the turkey lab, who are – how to put it? – who are the worst actors imaginable. You could pull any two strangers off the sidewalk and ask them to cold-read their lines and you would almost certainly get Olivier-Brando work by comparison. It was kismet that these guys somehow ended up with the roles.
On the other hand, in the “weirdness” category is the wonderful scene in which our hapless hero Herschell, now in turkey-man form, sneaks into Anne’s room in the middle of the night. She wakes up, recoils in horror, then realizes it’s him and launches into a long tearful heartfelt monologue about how this change – y’know, that he now HAS THE HEAD OF A TURKEY – affects her feelings for him and their future prospects together.
The director, Brad F. Grinter, appears on-screen periodically to offer rambling commentary on the story, sort of like the Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V, if the Chorus in Henry V was a skeevy chain-smoking ’70s-style Florida barfly with a mustache. Toward the end, while he is holding forth on the dangers of putting foreign substances into your body, this dude breaks into a coughing fit, which, to be fair, I think may have been a deliberate attempt at self-deprecating irony.
On that note: May everyone have a joyful Turkey Day full of putting foreign substances in your body, and then falling asleep in front of the TV…
Previously by M.V. Moorhead:
The Ten Least Intimidating, Supposedly Powerful Robots in Sci-Fi
The Top Ten Pop-Culture Cavemen Who Aren’t the Flintstones (or the Croods)
The Thirteen Greatest Fictional Snails
The Ten Best Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror Novels You’ve Probably Never Read