“Birdemic: Shock and Terror” Pays Homage to an Alfred Hitchcock Classic

21 08 2011

Visionary writer/director James Nguyen pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film “The Birds” with “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” his own homegrown “romantic thriller™.” (We know he’s a visionary because the trailer for “Birdemic” says so. And yes, the phrase “romantic thriller™” appears with that ™ in the trailer.) Released in 2008, “Birdemic” has taken wing as more than a mere tribute, though. It’s come to stand for all that is great – and delightfully terrible – about inept, low-budget filmmaking.

Like “The Birds,” “Birdemic” takes its time in unleashing its true horror upon the audience. The first half of the movie is mostly about Rod, a young software salesman, and Nathalie, a hot model he meets. After spying her in a diner, Rod realizes they’ve met before. They went to high school together…they sat two seats apart in English class in eleventh grade…but he never made a pass at her. When Nathalie asks him why – in those words – he says he was too shy.

Both of their careers are going great, fortunately, and they make a great couple, as they quiz each other on their interests and ideal mates over Italian food. Rod closes a million dollar sale from the comfort of his open-air cubicle – the biggest deal he’s ever made, so high fives all around! – while his company is bought for a billion dollars (“A billion!” the CEO keeps repeating to his assembled staff of about 14 people.) Meanwhile, Nathalie’s agent at “Dream Models” informs her that she’s been selected to be the cover model for the next Victoria’s Secret catalogue – although her mother would feel better if she would get a real estate license, you know, in case that modeling thing doesn’t work out. Because, yeah, landing the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue is no guarantee of anything.

After a double-date with another couple, Rod’s friend from work and his girlfriend, who happens to be Nathalie’s best friend, things start to go bad. That’s not just because after watching “An Inconvenient Truth” at the local multiplex, the other couple excuse themselves to go to a meeting: “A sensual meeting,” as the dude explains. Yeah, that movie is quite a turn-on. No, while Rod and Nathalie make tender love without undressing in a motel room they inexplicably check into even though he lives alone, the little town of Half Moon Bay changes. After long panning shots of the local scenery – the quaint streets, the English pub, the pumpkin patch – the town is savagely, suddenly attacked by flocks of birds that somehow seem able to (a) hover, (b) spit acid and (c) explode.

The birds even find Rod and Nathalie in their motel room, banging on a window and waking the still-dressed couple. They manage to escape and knock on a nearby door where another couple is hiding out. Since Rod has lost his keys, they join forces, escaping the motel room by brandishing coat hangers against a flock of hovering birds in one of the film’s most harrowing scenes. They then speed off in the guy’s beat-up Ford Aerostar minivan. And since he’s an ex-Marine, he has lots of assault rifles in the vehicle, enabling them to shoot at the birds as they drive away, taking out some of them in graphics that are about two steps up from the video game “Duck Hunter.”

Word of the attacks has spread; “forest wildfires” threaten the countryside, and gas stations gouge desperate drivers with $100 per gallon prices. After saving two frightened kids, they pick up snacks and a case of bottled water, but that doesn’t keep them from stopping by a stream to refill some empty bottles with fresh water. While in the forest, a self-professed “tree hugger” wearing a terrible wig explains that he’s safe in the forest, so…good for him! They also encounter a roadside bandit who steals their gasoline can at gunpoint, but is viciously slashed by a bird.

After running out of gas, our heroes make their way to a beach, where Rod catches a fish and Nathalie gathers seaweed for a delicious dinner, although both children express a preference for Happy Meals. Before Rod and Nathalie can cram the seaweed and fish down the kids’ throats, the birds attack! Again! This time, they are saved by another flock of birds: Peaceful doves that drive off the awful eagles and hawks. As the little band watches the two flocks of birds very very slowly fly off in the distance, the credits roll.

I knew “Birdemic” was going to be special from the word go. The film opens on local traffic, as a white minivan waits at a traffic light to make a left turn. “Ah ha,” I thought. “Whoever is driving the car must be our hero.” But we never see the white minivan again. After it turns, we cut to a blue Mustang, which we follow for a long time while the credits roll, never seeing who’s driving. For a minute or two, the Mustang is followed by a bright yellow tow-truck which is towing another car, so I thought that might be something, but no. We see Rod at last, for the first time, when he reaches his office and gets out of the car.

Also, quick pointer for would-be filmmakers out there: When you shoot through the windshield of a beat-up Ford Aerostar, it’s okay to clean the windshield.

In many ways, the high point of “Birdemic” may be the scene in which the CEO tells Rod and the rest of the staff that the company has been bought out for “a billion dollars! A billion!” It’s a chilling indictment of greed in corporate America, as the staff applauds the buyout. Director Nguyen films the staff, seated at a table, two at a time; as each pair finishes applauding, we cut to another pair, who are still applauding, until we see the full horrific effect of the applause. Or, in other words, “A billion!”

Or it could be the terrifying scene in which Rod and his Marine friend, Ramsey, rescue some people trapped in a double-decker tourist bus by hovering turkey vultures. Rod and Ramsey aim at the birds and bus, but manage to kill the birds without causing any apparent damage to the bus or the people inside. Who all get killed by more birds the minute they make their escape.

Nguyen does an admirable job combining his love of Hitchcock with an environmental message. Because, as Dr. Jones says, “It’s the human species that needs to quit playing cowboy with nature. We must act more like astronauts, spacemen taking care of Spaceship Earth.” and he should know. He’s a scientist.

This fall, Rod returns in “Birdemic II: The Resurrection 3D,” as the marauding birds attack Hollywood! It’s sure to be every bit as good as the original “Birdemic,” because James Nguyen is a visionary.

Here’s the official trailer for “Birdemic.” There are lots of clips from the movie on YouTube, so be sure to check them out!

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Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds” – on Shirts and on Stage!

5 08 2011

Check out these two great new tributes to the classic Alfred Hitchcock film “The Birds,” both of which you’re definitely going to dig!

The first, which I spotted while busily running around at Comic-Con International: San Diego a couple of weeks back (I was working!), is this awesome T-shirt that recreates Hitch’s famous silhouette in bird form. It’s available from the company Super7. They have lots of other nifty shirts, toys, books and more, but of course I was drawn to this particular item, which I was told was one of their hottest sellers at the con. You can order it here – but first, look how cool!

In a related story, I am driving to Buffalo, NY, on Saturday, August 6, for a family event – and by sheer coincidence, I learned that this is the date the stage show “The Birds Attack!” opens at the Buffalo United Artists Theater. It stars local stage legend Jimmy Janowski, who created this adaptation of the movie, as Melanie Daniels, the role made famous by Tippi Hedren – green suit and all. The show runs Saturdays and Sundays in August, and I hope to see it on the sixth so I can write a review for this Hitchblog. It sounds like it’s going to be a hoot, and you can read more about it in this article from Buffalo’s ArtVoice – and watch for my review coming up soon – if I can get tickets for Saturday night, that is!

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Alfred Hitchcock by Those Who Knew Him Best

2 08 2011

With the book “It’s Only A Movie,” writer Charlotte Chandler presents an intimate portrait of Alfred Hitchcock through interviews with his family, friends, colleagues, and Hitchcock himself.

Published in 2005, the book provides perspectives on Hitchcock’s moviemaking genius from dozens of sources, especially Alma Reville Hitchcock and Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, and so many others as well: stars like James Stewart, Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Marlene Dietrich, Martin Landau, James Mason, Jane Wyman, Ingrid Bergman, Henry Fonda, Tippi Hedren and more, who discuss Hitchcock’s delight in finding new ways to call actors cattle, usually just to get a rise out of them; his on set personality that veered from bawdy to bored; and his attention to every last technical detail.

But it’s in the interviews with the behind the scenes people that Chandler digs up new gold. Former writers and cameramen, for example, have less reason than a movie star does to speak discreetly, and while the book does not air much dirty laundry, there is some frank discussion from Hitch’s early screenplay collaborator, Charles Bennett, cameraman Jack Cardiff, production designer Robert Boyle, or actor/collaborators like Hume Cronyn and Norman Lloyd.

By going straight to the source – Hitchcock himself – Chandler reveals some interesting tidbids, like the fact that Hitchcock’s very first cameraman, Gaetano di Ventimiglia, sometimes credited as “Baron di Ventimiglia,” really was a baron. She also provides insights into Hitch’s relationship with Alma; although intensely private in his marriage, we learn that in their early years, Hitchcock called Alma “kitty,” but by the 1970s, he referred to her somewhat ironically as “the madame.”

Chandler goes beyond Hitchcock in “It’s Only a Movie.” In describing Hitch’s one outing with Marlene Dietrich, “Stage Fright,” she neatly delineates Dietrich’s entire career, from screen icon to chatty recluse, including a lengthy digression on Dietrich’s affair with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

While not as in-depth a biography as some, “It’s Only a Movie” is rightly subtitled “A Personal Biography.” A such books go, they don’t get much more personal than this one, and it’s as close to Hitchcock as most readers as likely to get.

 

 








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