The notion that the presence of Oscar-winning Broderick Crawford or that a bunch of expository scenes will divert audiences away from the lack of decent special effects, or story for that matter, comes sadly unstuck. There’s so much exposition that at times it feels like an audio book rather than a piece of cinema. The one great image – a skeleton in laboratory – is treated with disdain. Not only has it “cult” written all over it but it must be a contender for the all-time “So Bad It Hasn’t A Hope Of Being Good” Award,
Which is a shame because on paper at least this might have sounded passable what with atomic transmutation, hidden treasure, grave-robbing, remote location, strange noises in the night, an incident in the 15th century, man buried alive, eerie tapping on windows, a creepy Church sexton, and a mythological beast originating from the Incas or Aztecs or even Easter Island.
But it pivots on the kind of family curse, mysterious past, strange occurrences, that Sherlock Holmes might have been called in to resolve, especially as there seemed an awful lot of explaining to do and it’s easier to hang on to every word of the world’s most famous detective rather than a scientist banging on about the inexplicable. The first two-thirds is taken up with solving the mystery, it’s only in the last section when horror takes over that a genuine sense of tension emerges.
A woman taking a shortcut through a graveyard (as one does) spies a gravestone wobbling, earth erupting in front of her and has visions (enough to make her hair go white) of a huge bird with a man’s head. Visiting nuclear scientist Eric (Robert Hutton) takes an interest. His wife Trudy’s (Diane Clare) uncle Brian (Broderick Crawford) explains the legend of a Spaniard buried alive because he turned himself into a vulture and kidnapped a small child. His buddy, German professor Koniglich (Akim Tamiroff), expands on the story.
Gold coins are found scattered close to the grave. Boys find the bloody leg of a sheep on a beach and there’s a likely unreachable hiding place of a cave in the cliffs. Uncle Brian is of the obstinate variety and refuses to the toe the line and keep his windows firmly closed so he’s next to disappear. But there’s a hungry beast to feed so Brian’s brother Edward (Gordon Sterne) is the next victim. Trudy is despatched out of harm’s way to London but lured back by a mysterious telegram.
Meanwhile, hot on the trail, Eric finds Koniglich’s lair, a laboratory inhabited only by a skeleton, but with his own understanding of the possibilities of atomic science Eric works out the German must have employed nuclear power to fuse man and vulture and set out to wreak revenge.
It was obviously a toss-up between spending the tiny budget on a fading Hollywood star and supporting bad guy actor of some repute rather than on special effects. Quite how, at that time, anyone would have managed a convincing half-man-half-vulture is anybody’s guess and the prospect of making such a creature credibly fly would have been beyond comprehension so sensibly director Lawrence Huntingdon settles for the prospect, showing talons from time to time and letting audience imagination do the rest, and I am sure if you saw this as a child you would be bolting doors and windows.
Robert Hutton (They Came from Beyond Space, 1967) doesn’t have a chance of imposing himself on the picture since he is lumbered by buckets of exposition and supposition. Though he could take a lesson from Broderick Crawford (A House Is Not a Home, 1964) in how to milk a small role. Crawford is something of a clever red herring. Given his screen persona I had expected him to be the bad guy, at the point of his appearance in the picture notions of scientific dexterity not being a prerequisite. Akim Tamiroff (The Liquidator, 1965) plays down his villainous qualities so until we are introduced to his lab, he’s not the obvious bad guy either.
It might have worked better if the audience was filled in on more of the mystery than the investigator, perhaps witnessing Koniglich at least toying with his equipment, maybe making the screen glow the way dodgy scientists were inclined to do.
This was the final film in the 30-year career of director Lawrence Huntingdon (Drums Along the River, 1963) and if he couldn’t manage a swansong of the kind Clark Gable delivered with The Misfits (1960) then I guess the next best thing was a movie for cultists to savor.