It’s probably no surprise that most low-budget films about nature itself wreaking righteous vengeance upon humanity come with some kind of environmental moral. It’s an easy way to lend some gravitas to a movie from which the audience just wants to get some thrills or, more likely, some bloody deaths caused by otherwise harmless or not so harmless animals. It’s a natural thematic connection, but it’s certainly no coincidence that “killer animal” films as a sub-genre (animalsploitation?) hit its peak in the ‘70s at the exact same time environmental politics first really entered the American public consciousness between the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the widespread belief that the world was on its way to real Soylent Green-style overpopulation.
This is why I had to check twice to make sure Birds of Prey, a 1987 Mexican-Italian production that was filmed around Latin America, Puerto Rico, and Spain with a few scenes in Rome, didn’t come out ten or so years before its release year. It’s probably even weirder a film that’s such an obvious knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds came out over twenty years too late. But it makes sense that, given the timespan, Birds of Prey does end up combining its The Birds “inspiration” with the hamfisted environmentalism of ‘70s “killer animals” flicks. Unfortunately, this really just makes Birds of Prey call even more attention to Hitchcock’s own masterpiece than it normally would, since it illuminates all too well one of Hitchcock’s brilliant ideas. Hitchcock never even hints at an explanation why birds across the world have tried to push humanity off the top of the evolutionary hierarchy; they just are. This isn’t really a question over the storytelling challenges of making a “message movie,” but the fact that a threat that spawns from unseen forces, that defies a pat logical explanation, is often more effective, at least when you have a story where the focus is on everyday characters who just happen to have their lives upended by the threat.
Instead with Birds of Prey the environmental message is obvious from the first post-credits shot of birds flying around a garbage dump. Only the endless dialogue about climate change from Birdemic may be said to be slightly more obvious. To be fair, there is more to it, sort of; an extended pre-credit sequence that takes place in Machu Picchu where a group of tourists are told by a guide about an Incan legend saying that the souls of the dead will one day return as avenging birds. Later in the movie our protagonist, a journalist named Vanessa, sees a flock of birds after an attack following the trail of smoke and remarks that it’s “almost like they’re following the souls of the dead.” I guess you can interpret all this as an attempt to add some metaphysical ambiguity, even if the environmentalist message remains clear. Or maybe the director just wanted an excuse to put being in Machu Picchu on the budget. Honestly I was kind of surprised that the closing credits had no evidence the film was backed by the tourism bureau of Peru in another Final Justice-esque alliance between a government’s tourism board and a b-movie producer. At any rate, the stuff about Machu Picchu, which hilariously includes a half-serious nod to the idea that the Nazca Lines were made by aliens, has about as much of an impact on the plot as this movie probably had on Peruvian tourism.
Machu Picchu is the film’s most egregious tangent, but not the only one. In its first half the film switches back and forth between its main plot and its subplots with such ADHD-esque speed it almost feels like you’re dealing with one of Roland Emmerich’s sprawling, cast-of-hundreds epics. When the plot does coalesce into something concrete, it turns out it’s about a TV journalist Vanessa (Michelle Johnson) and her boyfriend/co-worker, cameraman Peter (Christopher Atkins). Like any journalist in a movie like this, Vanessa is sick of doing fluff pieces. When she and Peter are sent to cover the story of a poultry farmer who was attacked by his chickens and turkeys and now claims every bird he comes across attacks him. Vanessa “tests” this on air by releasing a canary that has spent its entire life in a cage and the canary scratches the farmer’s cheek. Vanessa and Peter are slightly unnerved, but they soon find stories of bird attacks from across the world are piling up, and soon the Spanish city they’re staying in is about to be hit by a mega-flock of millions of birds. Elsewhere a famous hunter, already disfigured by a bird attack, picks a really bad time to host an outdoor party for his granddaughter, a group of teenagers choose an equally bad time to spend the day at the beach, and a bickering family on vacation decide on…well, you get the idea.
Even the main plot helps give the movie its disjointed feel, as the first half of the movie just follows Veronica and Peter as they slowly catch on to the growing aviary crisis. Most of these scenes just push the subtext into text into supertext (thanks, The Simpsons). First, before they learn that birds have been going on a rampage, they do a fluff piece on a marksman who can shoot pigeons. Even in professional journalist mode, Vanessa can barely hide her disgust and Peter is shocked when the marksman tells him he does it for pleasure. Of course, it puts a damper on the animal rights, anti-hunting-just-for-pleasure message when you realize that the film is using real footage of pigeons being shot. I rather hope the footage wasn’t made just for this film, although I have to admit the idea of a movie with a strong environmentalist message pulling a Cannibal Holocaust tugs at my black, shriveled little heart. If that wasn’t clear enough, Vanessa and Peter also interview survivors of a bird attack on a Spanish village thirty years ago and together they muse that that the birds are defending their “natural ecological balance” which can be restored but not if “the contamination has gone too far.” Needless to say, once they’ve given their message, the characters never show up again. Preacherus Ex Machina!
If the unsubtle, plot-stopping politics of this movie already turns you off, dear reader, the weird lack of avian mayhem will likely seal the deal. After literally kicking things off with one half of a hanggliding couple having his eye torn out and then sent plummeting to his death by a hawk, the movie opts instead for slow, arty shots of flocks of birds imposed on people, especially a long and completely inexplicable series of shots of a little boy standing in a park among pigeons. Even when the movie sets up a teenage couple on a beach the results are mostly bloodless except for when we get to see the aftermath. This is probably the first time I’ve ever seen a b-movie be coy about showing nubile teens getting slaughtered.
Also it doesn’t help that this movie has just about as many assholes in it as your typical Internet comments section. Peter is such a louse (although played with a frat boyish sincerity by Christopher Atkins) you can’t help but wonder why he and Vanessa are dating. He even openly reads porn while Vanessa is in the shower (this also sets up one of the most gloriously contrived and unashamed female full-frontal nudity shots I’ve ever seen, which given what I usually watch is really saying something and which suggests that actress Michelle Johnson may have had a no-nudity clause). Most of the family’s dialogue is bickering, even between the family’s prepubescent son and daughter. Vanessa, the grandfather, and his adult daughter come across the only likeable if vaguely defined characters, but even there you’ll be wondering why Vanessa, when the inhabitants of the Spanish town flee the incoming bird assault in a train, seems to have more authority than even the town mayor! Maybe in some parts of the world being a journalist does give you executive authority.
It’s really only the second half where the movie picks up and feels like the foreign imitation of The Birds you were expecting, when the director finally jettisons the environmentalist messaging (for the most part) and the long mood-setting shots. The best part of this entire sequence isn’t the desperate train ride out of the doomed Spanish town which is the film’s real climax, but the subplot where birds terrorize a daughter’s birthday party, forcing the survivors indoors. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that this is also the part of the movie most heavily cribbed from The Birds, right down to the chimney being the means for the birds to launch a home invasion.
Unlike Hitchcock’s film, which ended on a note as ambiguous as the cause of the bird attacks itself, Birds of Prey does end with the bird-human war mysteriously stopping and a solemn broadcast from Vanessa herself in which she speculates on the causes. It turns out that Vanessa is spot on about it being a “warning”because while an obscure Bible verse flashes across the screen we see it’s the insects’ turn to revolt against humanity! Well, maybe. It’s all kind of muddled, especially if you’re still trying to make all that stuff about the birds being reincarnated from the souls of the dead and the Incans fit. All I can say is that in terms of pure fun Birds of Prey is no Birdemic, but at least it’s not The Birds II: Land’s End.