Monday, July 11, 2011

El Terror de Mexico: BIRDS OF PREY (1987)

Our recent journey into Mexploitation cinema certainly hasn’t been by design, but he is another great offering for you.  Chances are if you’ve made it to our darkened corner of the internet(s) that you’ve heard of a film director named Alfred Hitchcock.  People go on and on about how he was the greatest director of all time with films like VERTIGO (1958), PSYCHO (1960), and THE BIRDS (1963).  Well, if he was so great, how come he couldn’t shoehorn some rampant gore and gratuitous nudity from a double for the female lead into his birds-gone-amuck epic?  Because that is what Mexican exploitation director RenĂ© Cardona Jr. did in BIRDS OF PREY (aka BEAKS: THE MOVIE), his delightful stab at copying the master’s fowl fright flick.

Cardona kicks things off properly with some globe hopping to show a worldwide epidemic of bird attacks. No joke, we jump around from Peru to Mexico to Spain to Puerto Rico.  The film finally settles down and focuses on three separate storylines.  The largest one centers on TV reporter Vanessa Cartwright (Michelle Johnson) and her cameraman Peter (Christopher Atkins). She is apparently pissed that her director sends her to cover a story on a guy being attacked by his chickens, but slowly begins to connect the dots that these attacks aren’t just random.  This sends her all over the globe (quite a budget this TV station she works for has) as she starts interviewing scientists and attack survivors before ending up in a town besieged by birds.

The second storyline focuses on a husband, wife and their two kids on vacation in Puerto Rico.  Poor dad has more problems than just a nagging wife after their car gets stuck on the beach and the family has to run for their lives from crazed birds.  The third storyline focuses on old hunter Arthur Neilson (Aldo Sambrell).  He recently got his eyeball plucked out by a bird and now has to deal with more bird attacks the same day his granddaughter – gasp – is having her big birthday party outside on his estate.  Everyone fights these pissed off winged warriors in their own way, but will mankind survive?

Okay, before we go any further, I should probably tell the Hitchcock nerds that I was only kidding and I don’t think BIRDS OF PREY will be replacing THE BIRDS in film history any time soon.  If Hitchcock’s film is the gold standard, than PREY is that knockoff fake gold that people use to make cheap grills for their teeth.  But that doesn’t stop this from being entertaining as hell.  Cardona lets you know from the first five minutes what kind of film this is going to be – exploitation to the max.  I mean, Hitchcock only dreamed of opening a film with a hang glider getting their eyeball plucked out while sailing through the sky.  And Cardona certainly knows how to pile on the gore.  Here is Neilson getting his eyeball stolen:

If you didn’t know the director and country of origin, you would think that is straight out of a 1980s Italian horror flick with the banging score, gushing gore and seductive slow-mo shots.

Also keeping in line with the Italians was the ability to snag down-on-their-luck actors.  The surprise here is that we have young Hollywood actors showing up rather than boozed out has-beens. Michelle Johnson made her debut co-starring with Michael Caine in BLAME IT ON RIO in 1984 and somehow managed to end up in this just a few years later?  She must have been kicking her agent.  To add insult to injury, Cardona inserts some fully nude body double shots of her getting out of the tub (they are all shot from the neck down).  I don’t doubt Johnson saw this and was mortified when those bits came up. Even worse is poor Christopher Atkins, who is about as far from his hunk status in THE BLUE LAGOON as you can get. Seriously, that was one of the top ten films at the box office in 1980 and now he is swatting off pigeons being thrown at him?  He even has to recite dialog like “those birds certainly know what they’re doing.”  If Johnson kicked her agent, Atkins probably beat the holy hell out of his.  His career never recovered and he was doomed to star in flicks that would regularly end up on the SyFy Channel.

Cardona and his Mexican team also seem pretty adept at creating that nonsensical plotting that some of the Italian filmmakers indulged in.  The cause of the bird attacks is never quite clear (apparently they are pissed at man for its poor treatment of the environment).  Equally fuzzy is why the attacks stop.  No joke, the film ends with an announcement coming over the TV basically saying, “Well, looks like it is over.”  What?  They even end with a shot of a polluted lake and something else being pissed.  You can’t tell if it is bugs or fish so there is an end crawl that quotes the “Prophecy of Joel” about the plague of locusts from the bible!  Sadly, Cardona never made LOCUSTS OF PREY.  I also love that when the people try to escape the city via train that they get held up by some…wait for it…sheep on tracks!  We certainly can't plow through some innocent sheep with our speeding train while we race for our lives.  Oh wait, maybe the sheep are in on it too.  Cardona, you genius!  Too bad he never made SHEEP OF PREY.

Cardona mostly uses pigeons here, making me think this animal wrangler consisted of a guy with a loaf of bread. He certainly knew how to make the most of his birds though and gives them an eerie quality.  This is thanks mostly to tons of slow motion.  Seriously, they must have extended the run time by 15 minutes with all the slow-mo on display here.  He also has a knack for the Kuleshov Effect, filming some poor birds glancing at the camera and somehow making it look sinister.  I actually started to feel sorry for these poor birds as you know the ASPCA wasn’t on set for this one.  Lots of pigeons were violently thrown during this film’s production.  Some unlucky birds even appear to be tied to their victims.  All of these ingredients add up for one enjoyable flick.  BIRDS OF PREY definitely ain’t no turkey (ah, boo yourself)!

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