First published by EyeforFilm
With its location shoots in California’s Mission Bay, its ‘cameo’ (in archival footage seen on a television screen) from Tippi Hedren herself and its winged death from above, James Nguyen’s auteurist atrocity Birdemic: Shock And Terror is an open tribute to The Birds (1963). It is also strictly for them, vying with films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), Troll 2 (1990) and The Room (2003) for the title of top turkey.
If its cumbersome, linguistically tortuous title is not sufficient advertisement of the cinematic guano to come, then the opening sequence, in which personality-free protagonist Rod (Alan Bagh) is shown driving, and driving, and then driving some more, clinches it. There may be some foreshadowing intended here of the film’s broader environmental concerns, but Nguyen’s plodding management of pace has us feeling as though we are jammed right there with Rod, on the road to nowhere.
And that is before a single word of Nguyen’s always banal, sometimes nonsensical dialogue has been uttered – written by a nuance-deaf devotee of meandering small talk and verbal high-fives, and delivered (by Bagh in particular) as though being read with difficulty from a faulty autocue. It is occasionally rendered inaudible, too, by the filmmakers’ reluctance to normalise the volume from one take to the next, so that each and every cut – even mid-scene cuts to reverse angle shots – is accompanied by clunking sonic discontinuity. That the actors are at times called upon to recite their lines while holding the boom between their knees hardly helps.
Nguyen financed Birdemic, made over the course of four years, with the salary from his day job as a mid-level software salesman in Silicon Valley – which might explain why Rod, like the protagonists of Nguyen’s similarly ‘Hitchcockean’ features Julie And Jack (2003) and Replica (2005), also works in computer software, and courts model Nathalie (Whitney Moore) in the supposedly seductive language of salesmanship, stock options and start-up companies.
“I like sales – it fits my personality,” he tells her. “That’s interesting,” she replies – but at least Moore (unlike Bagh) is a good enough actor to make Nathalie look, against all probability, as though she really means it.
This dreary romance, however, lasting a patience-stretching 45 minutes, is not how Birdemic will be remembered. For at the film’s exact halfway point, just after our lovebirds have finally spent the night together in a motel, their all-smiles version of the American Dream turns into a nightmare of nature’s revenge, as they wake (or do they?) to the irritant screech of hilariously lo-tech ‘special’-effect eagles at their window.
Here boring gives way to the simply bizarre, as characters arm themselves with coat hangers against avian aggressors, get killed while (and by implication for) literally taking a dump on nature, and take time out in the middle of this ornithological apocalypse to listen to impromptu lectures from environmentalists, or to have a picnic – in the open air!
As one absurdity follows another, Nguyen lays on the ecological/pacifist messages so thick that they drift from serious subtext to absurdist agitprop. Meanwhile, the birds themselves resemble a less mobile version of the lo-res winged invaders from Eighties arcade game Phoenix – something which Nguyen apparently acknowledges by setting one sequence at Half Moon Bay’s (and the world’s) only double-decker video game bus, in a tantalising hint of self-awareness from a writer/director who otherwise rarely drops the mask of clueless filmic bumbler.
It might be tempting to celebrate Birdemic as an independent filmmaker’s labour of love, as a striking work of ‘outsider’ cinema, or as a triumph of creative determination over dearth of budget – but really, it is so dull, incompetent and ridiculous that it can and will be championed only by a repeat audience of ironists and iconoclasts looking for the next cult film to worship.
See it with the hipster crowd, and you might just find yourself laughing with them – and at it – as they find humour in its total ineptitude. See it alone, though, and it is unlikely that the film’s heightened brand of worthlessness will be able take wing. So bad it’s good? So bad it’s bad? Either way, so very, very bad – but probably no worse than its promised sequel, Birdemic II: The Resurrection 3D.