Adapted for the screen by John Kneubuhl (The Screaming Skull ’58, Two on a Guillotine ’65 both have a similar eerie Gothic sensibility) and directed by John Newland. (One Step Beyond 60s tv series, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ’73) Pigeons From Hell was another story taken out of Weird Tales Magazine from a story by Robert E. Howard (Author of Conan the Barbarian), in 1938, which he based on old legends that his grandmother had told him in West Texas.This also seems to coincide with similar themes of Voodoo by Zora Neale Hurston Author Folklorist/Anthropologist during the time of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote the non-fiction exploration of Haitian/Caribbean rituals in Tell My Horse in 1937, just a year earlier.
With original music by Jerry Goldsmith and Mort Stevens which is perfectly haunting for this Southern Gothic tale. And fabulous art direction by George Patrick and set design by Julia Heron who also worked on The Incredible Doktor Markesan (Spartacus ’60) and John McCarthy Jr. The Blassenville house is a place of fear and desolation. The camera frames the characters within the tired structure itself, cobweb-laced door frames, dark staircases that hold their ascent, and black box rooms with scattered dusty relics.
The story takes place one fateful night when two New York brothers Johnny and Tim Branner, driving over a rickety wooden bridge (shot in obvious day for night), suddenly hit a muddy ditch and begin spinning their tires to no avail. Now they remain stranded under a wonderfully bewitching weeping willow, a classic prop for a southern Gothic tale, in the swamp lands of the Louisiana countryside.
The opening scene is embellished with the willow’s mossy tendrils, swaying, drifting, and blowing as if by an unseen lazy wind. And so it begins.
The boys get out of the car and Tim played by the very wholesome-looking Brandon De Wilde says “Welcome to the fabled south, land of Crinoline, Magnolias, lovely ladies, and swamps”
Johnny defends himself for having been chided about his shortcut, “Okay okay so it’s not the new york thruway you’ve got to admit that this is the way it truly is”
While Johnny goes off to find a pole that they can use to dislodge the tire from the mud that’s when a strange wailing starts, like that of a distressed alley cat in heat.
Johnny wanders off starting to reach deeper into the context of the landscape. As he pushes aside the dangling mossy vines, he stumbles upon dozens of pigeons that begin cooing madly. He discovers the desolate antebellum plantation, The Blassenville Mansion dying from decay. The place seems plagued by these mysterious, demonic pigeons. There is an eerie cackling, unearthly wails, and the pervasively hellish fluttering of their wings. They begin to converge on Johnny, coming right at his face, like a scene out of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds which wasn’t released until two years later in 1963.
Once Tim catches up after hearing his brother’s bloodcurdling screams, Johnny tells him that the pigeons seemed like they were trying to kill him! “That ‘s just it it was like they were attacking me”
The two young men decide they’re tired and should take refuge in the old house for the night.
Like many great Southern Gothic tales, this one is surrounded by the presence of something lurking behind the silent deteriorating walls. The wonderful B&W and shadows of pale and steely gray cinematography by Lionel Lindon ( Alfred Hitchcock Presents ’55, The Manchurian Candidate ’62, Dead Heat on a Merry- Go- Round ’66)
Time has stood still. There’s a sense that the house is diseased with a family secret, much like one of my other favorite episodes Parasite Mansion. The setting bares the remnants of a Robert Aldrich film like Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte ’62. We break for Boris’ prologue.
By an old gnarled tree, Boris Karloff steps out to greet us. A cautionary deep string flourish leads the way, as he looks around, standing in a swirl of mist.
Once Johnny and Tim are inside the house, we see a large winding staircase that hints at a time when this might have been an opulent showplace. I was struck by a frame that shows the disconnection with life outside the old house with its splendid chandelier which looms prominently over the two boy’s heads as they enter the empty dusty gray of the beginning of the house.
Tim calls out as they start to climb the stairs, “Is anybody home?” There’s a quick cut to a darkened room filled with cobwebs and the outline of an old seamstress dummy. To the left of screen, we see a door as it subtly closes ever so slightly. It’s an eerie touch, that lends to the menacing atmosphere of the decrepit house.
There is no furniture downstairs yet a strange portrait of a woman who seems to be reigning over the emptiness, the place is a musty, decaying hollow shell of another era like the exoskeleton of a giant decomposing beetle. Preparing to take refuge overnight on the lower floor they set out their sleeping bags, but Johnny still seems like he’s in a state of shock. He begins to walk around and finds a cobweb-covered painting of a woman whom he senses holds the secret to what is haunting the place. From the beginning, Johnny does seem to have an uncanny second sight which is causing him great distress. Staring at the painting, a poignant violin melody begins its undercurrent, it is the theme of this mysterious woman. Dissolve, into the spooky, dreamy gray facade of the mansion. Columns, the rhythmically otherworldly drone of these sentinel pigeons guarding their ancient Gothic citadel. Winged gatekeepers to a graveyard.
Tim is awakened in the middle of the night and discovers that his brother Johnny is not there. We hear a sweet, distant vocalize like the siren Lorelei of Greek mythology who lured the sailors onto the rocks. Johnny has been aroused by this haunting lullaby lilting in the air and seems to be drawn upward as if in a somnambulist’s trance. Moving by some unseen provocation, the voice leads him up the staircase.
We are sharing his enchantment. We follow him. Now we hear the pigeons in a fury. Louder like a heart pumping blood, pulling us up the stairs with Johnny. Once Tim starts to stir he discovers that his brother is not in his sleeping bag next to him.
Tim proceeds to look for his missing brother. The vocalize is more audible to him now, as Johnny ascends the stairs there is a crescendo of fluttering, wings, and a female voice. Tim about to reach the top of the stairs is startled by his brother’s screams. Johnny emerges from the shadows, blood flowing down his face. He is holding a bloody hatchet. He moves towards Tim and strikes with the hatchet but misses and sinks it into the wall behind his brother. Tim runs down the stairs, calling his brother’s name. “John, John!” He runs out of the house fleeing in terror into the dark night through the mossy guilded trees.
He stumbles into the swamp after hitting his head on a rock. Johnny still sleepwalking or is he the walking dead, holding the hatchet, collapses as he buries the weapon in the sleeping bag where Tim’s head would have been.
Johnny walks down the staircase still in a trance, holding the hatchet up as if ready to strike.
This is where county Sheriff Buckner (Crahan Denton) enters the story. He is attending to the gash on Tim’s head. Sheriff Buckner tells him that a local, Howard had found him while coon hunting and found him out cold in the woods, bringing him to this nearby cabin. Tim wakes screaming “Johnny, Johnny… Where am I?” He begins telling Sheriff Buckner that Johnny’s head was smashed but he was still walking with a hatchet in his hand. “He was walking down the stairs to me, his head was split, he was dead, I know he was dead.” Buckner realizes that the only place he could be talking about is the old Blassenville Plantation.
In order to clear his name and recover his brother’s body, Tim agrees to go back to the house with Sheriff Buckner. Buckner seems not to believe the boy and is pretty sure that he’s either crazy or murdered his own brother. Back at the Blassenville house, Tim tells Buckner, “He came down those stairs” The sheriff holds his lantern and shines a light on a blood stain. Tim says, “Look there’s my brother’s blood” Buckner gripes, ” Yeah yeah yeah I see”
They go into the room where Johnny is lying dead on the floor-“He tried to kill me, he tried to kill me” The somber violin and the use of shadow underpin the tension. Buckner doesn’t believe Tim yet.
“Why do you suppose he went upstairs,” Tim says “I don’t know but from the moment we saw this house it was as though he was listening all the time. just listening… and then those pigeons started, they’re not there now, but I saw them!” Tim struggles, to press the truth but Buckner tells him that it’s the judge and jury that he has to convince. Sheriff Buckner wants to go upstairs and investigate but Tim doesn’t want to be left alone, so he follows him. The lantern shines a light on the bloody trail leading up the stairs.
They find Johnny’s body face down on the sleeping bag still holding the hatchet which is placed on the spot where Tim was sleeping. He’s dead.
An effectively creepy moment happens while they are searching upstairs, the lantern goes out. Buckner tells Tim there’s plenty of kerosene and the wick is fine, and there standing right on the spot where Johnny had been struck by the hatchet. Buckner gets spooked and tells Tim they’re getting out of that room and going back downstairs. Once at the bottom of the stairs and the lantern lights up again-
The sheriff decides that he believes Tim’s story and that the only way he’s going to get anyone to believe it is to find out what’s in the house. They put Johnny’s body in the station wagon and go back into the house and “wait for something to happen”
Tim wonders if whatever is in the house chased the sisters out as well. Buckner tells him that the last Blassenville sister left the house over fifty years ago.
Back upstairs they find a piano, dust all over everything… tons of it but nothing on the keys. It’s as though somebody’s been playing it. Then they find a diary with what looks like Elizabeth’s name on it. The sad violin melody, the Blassenville theme begins to sway again. Tragically drawn-out notes. Tim tries to read the fine writing. “I can sense someone prowling about the house at night, after the sun has set, and the pines outside are black. Often at night I hear a fumbling at the door, I dare not open it. Oh merciful heaven, What shall I do”
The sheriff responds. “The thing was after her too!” Tim continues reading from the diary “All the help have run away, my sisters…gone, I am here alone. If someone murdered my poor sisters. (pause) Then, Eula Lee named Jacob Blount and Eula Lee would not speak plainly, perhaps she feared I shall die as hideously as they.” Then Buckner says “We’ll see Jacob Blount” Jacob Blount is portrayed by the wonderful Ken Renard.
They arrive at Jacobs shack. He’s an old raggedy man lying in his cot. Buckner starts shaking Jacob and says “I’ve got some questions I wanna ask you, Come on boy get up. (I was very offended at this gesture, Jacob was a very old southern black man and the use of the term ” boy” was a very racist remark. I don’t believe he would have referred to an old white male this way) He proceeds to tell him that tonight a boy was killed over at the old Blassenville Place. Jacob looks terrified.
In an accent assumed to be of Caribbean origin, Jacob tells them “Nobody dares (there) now, all dem (them) dead, but de come back at night, all dem pigeons” Buckner interrogates him and tells Jacob that Miss Elizabeth thought he knew who murdered the sisters, and she might still be in the house, after 50 long years. Eula Lee would have a reason. Elizabeth was afraid her sisters had been murdered Eula Lee would have reason… they beat her. “Why did they beat an innocent servant girl?”
Jacob tells them, “Life is sweet to an old man” meaning that someone would harm him if he continued to talk about it. But he says “No Human… No Human. De big serpent will send a little brudda (brother) to kill me if I told. I promised when de make me maker of Zuvembies–“ (Voodoo superstition. They’re women who are not human anymore)… So she knew I was maker of Zuvembies, so she come and stand right dare in my hut, and beg for de holy drink. They live forever, time mean nuting, an hour, a day, a year, all de same. She can command de dead, de birds, de snakes, de fowls, and only a led bullet can kill her”
Then begins the sound of the unholy fluttering of wings outside the hut. “Listen, no more no more, If I tell, she will come” As Jacob starts to stoke the fire with a stick he begins to scream wildly. He’s been bitten by a snake. A little brother has visited him, and he is now dead.
Buckner and Tim go back to the plantation where they find pigeons sitting on the sheriff’s wagon where Johnny’s dead body is laid out. Interesting touch which would later be profoundly, iconically amplified in The Birds in ’63
Tim wakes up and finds Sheriff Buckner missing. The climax of Pigeons From Hell leads us once again to the sweetly haunting, mesmerizing musical motif that is the Blassenville theme. The eerie woman’s vocalization now summoned Tim up the stairs. We see, in a slow shot, an old decaying hand not quite in focus yet, reaching around the corner in tattered rags. Until it is framed in necrotic splendor.
Tim keeps ascending the stairs in a hypnotic state. The Lullaby, the southern Gothic call of Eula Lee, and we now see the old crone’s desiccated face. The pigeons begin their demonic cooing.
There is some wonderful use of shadow, reminiscent of a good classic suspense thriller as we see Tim’s shadow cast in silhouette on the rotting drapery then moving further deeper into the house’s darkness.
She’s waiting, she opens the door all the way, holding a meat cleaver. A horrifying vision that still holds its shock value watching it nearly thirty times I figure. There’s something quite gripping about a lost soul living in desolation who comes erupting out of darkness, commands even the smallest living creatures, and wields a very sharp instrument of pain and death.
Just as she’s about to hack into Tim, Sheriff Buckner shoots at her and she falls away. Once Tim comes out of his trance, he follows Buckner behind a secret passageway and they stumble onto an incredibly macabre and horrific discovery. With a small candle lit, they find three skeletons, embellished with lace and pearls, “Our three sisters, all murdered, the way your brother was, the way you were supposed to be” Then they turn and see something stage right. Walking slowly. The sweet sorrowful melody begins to play on the violin, the resolve to the nightmarish years at the plantation.
Eula Lee is slumped in a chair, Buckner mutters, “Eula Lee, Eula Lee” Buckner holds the candle to her face-It is an eerie yet poignant moment.
Is she dead? Her eyes stare off -we hear the sweet vocalize once again as it leads us out of the episode. The last thing we see is a close-up of her ancient face.
Fade to black.
I haven’t read Howard’s original publication of the story, so I am not sure where he is coming from in terms of the message. There are definite racial themes in this adapted script. But from reading an excerpt from Howard’s story I think that the racial overtones are more severe there. I hesitate to use the word “miscegenation ” because it is problematic in the fact that people find this term offensive. Usually, scholars use this when discussing the historical relevance of interracial relationships. The taboo of the mixing of ethnic bloodlines. Coming from a time when the process of racial interaction was taking place because of the European Colonization of The Americas and the Atlantic Slave Trade. The idea is that the Blassenville sisters raged against Eula Lee for being the product of a biracial relationship.
Having the same mother, but not sharing a white father, was a bold underpinning motive for the turbulence and hatred that inflicted the curse upon the family. And the story does “Otherize” Eula Lee.
The fact that she seeks retribution through such “non-Christian” methods, the implication that she’s a savage. Read the little tidbit from Howard’s story below; The references to Eula Lee being a beast only reinforces my sense that she was considered “Other” With words like beast and bestial nature. Of course, the story was couched in very supernatural terms but the thread of racism seems so pervasive in this story.
“They say the pigeons are the souls of the Blassenvilles, let out of hell at sunset. The Negroes say the red glare in the west is the light from hell, because then the gates of hell are open, and the Blassenvilles fly out.
Was that thing a woman once?” whispered Griswell(Tim). “God, look at that face, even in death. Look at those claw-like hands, with black talons like those of a beast. Yes, it was human, though — even the rags of an old ballroom gown. Why should a mulatto maid wear such a dress, I wonder?” “This has been her lair for over forty years,” muttered Buckner, brooding over the grinning grisly thing sprawling in the corner. “This clears you, Griswell (TIm) — a crazy woman with a hatchet — that’s all the authorities need to know. God, what a revenge! — what a foul revenge! Yet what a bestial nature she must have had, in the beginnin’, to delve into voodoo as she must have done——” (“Pigeons From Hell” by Robert E. Howard)