Nature’s Fury Blogathon: Birds of Prey, a.k.a. Beaks: The Movie (1987)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Forsaken: Eunice (1982)

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Although I have plenty of elitist moments, I truly do think American audiences have more of a taste for darker, more biting material than studio executives routinely give them credit for. This is why I always find it depressing when something gets watered down for the sake of marketability. A borderline tragic example is what happened with The Carol Burnett Show‘s wildly popular “The Family” skits about the Harper clan from small town America, particularly the tortured (and torturing) relationship between unhappy housewife and frustrated aspiring actress Eunice (played by Carol Burnett) and her domineering mother Thelma (Vicki Lawrence). Like much great comedy the skits had humor mixed with just a hint of tragedy, like this skit where a game of “Sorry!” hilariously exposes the epic resentments just bubbling inside Eunice’s psyche. And again, like many popular comedic characters, Eunice is not terribly sympathetic, but that’s exactly what makes Eunice understandable. Above all, speaking as someone who grew up in rural America, the skits were deftly authentic. I doubt I’m the only one who felt that way; the characters of Eunice and Thelma became so popular, in fact, that they showed up in character on The Gong Show and Password.

So the sitcom follow-up, Mama’s Family, was inevitable. It debuted in 1983, but only lasted one season. However, a somewhat revamped version would be brought back for syndication in 1986, this time lasting four years. There’s much to be said about how Mama’s Family was a declawed successor to “The Family”, but perhaps the most revealing change was that the heavily-implied-to-be-gay son and successful writer Philip (originally played by Malcolm McDowell and then Ken Berry) was rewritten to be a straight good ol’ boy, Vinton. At least it’s to Ken Berry’s credit that he was able to pull off both personas well. However, the change closest to the spirit of the original skits was that Thelma Harper was transformed from a belittling, hostile matriarch into yet another tough-elderly-person-with-a-heart-of-gold. Because Carol Burnett declined to be a regular, Eunice, except for a few cameos, became an off-screen presence, who in the show’s syndicated run was just known for dumping her juvenile delinquent son Bubba off on Thelma.

Now the show wasn’t terrible, if only mostly because Vicki Lawrence’s portrayal of even a more cliched and less bitter and manipulative Mama Harper was still so memorable. But it did not make its mark on the landscape like, say, Golden Girls (which happened to snatch up Betty White and Rue McCallahan, who were involved with the pre-sydnication Mama’s Family). I have no doubt that it is because it simply lost most of that satirical and unflinching perspective on working-class, rural family life that made the original skits such a hit.

Of course, I don’t blame the makers for any of this. As I’ve said many times many ways, the Reagan era was not a good period to look for sitcoms with an edge. All things considered, shows like Small Wonder and Full House still made Mama’s Family on its better days look like an uncompromising commentary on American mores (well, maybe not the episode where the Harper clan ends up in Hawaii…).  Still, it’s hard not to mourn for what might have been, especially when you’ve watched the now forgotten spin-off TV movie, Eunice, which managed to take the darker undercurrents behind “The Family”  and bring them even closer to the surface.

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At the least, the TV movie’s plot is definitely something that wouldn’t have made it in Mama’s Family. The story follows the life of Eunice, who dreams of becoming an actress. Her brother Philip also has grand ambitions of becoming a writer. Philip seizes a chance to crash with a friend in Queens right after graduating from college, despite the protests of his mother Thelma who was instead counting on him being satisfied with a reporter job at the local paper. Eunice stays behind, hoping to making her start in the local community theater. Instead she marries a hardware store clerk, Ed Higgins (Harvey Korman), who wasn’t her first choice for a boyfriend, much less husband.

In New York, Philip becomes a successful novelist and screenwriter, eventually relocating to Los Angeles and enjoying national fame. However, the more successful he becomes, the more alienated he is from his uneducated family, who can’t even bring themselves to really comprehend much less discuss his literary accomplishments (or him being gay, for that matter, although it’s never quite spelled out; this was 1982, after all!). Meanwhile Eunice resigns herself to a life of envy and desperation, especially once Ed leaves her for a younger woman, her son Bubba runs away and disappears for good except for one painful phone call to Eunice, and her other son Billy is arrested for some unnamed crime and incarcerated. Eunice takes a job as a cashier at a dime store, but her real career is living with and taking care of Thelma. It’s even implied that Eunice has become an alcoholic, or at least is well on her way to becoming one (which was one of the darker if easily overlooked elements to “The Family”).

The day of her mother’s funeral, Eunice gets into a fight with her uptight, richly-married sister Ellen (Betty White), which causes Eunice to break down in grief. After Ellen leaves, she tries to also lash out at Philip, but the normally softspoken Philip has a breakdown of his own, and finally screams at Eunice that no one has ever stopped her from trying to be an actress but herself. In words that any creative who feels held back by the people in their life should take to heart: “And if you really want to be an actress, take a chance! Stick your neck out! Get off your butt and do it!” But in the end will Eunice finally break away from her own self-loathing and her self-imposed obligations and try to live the life she’s always wanted?

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This is all pretty heavy stuff for characters that started out as part of a comedy skit. Indeed, even by today’s standards, you’d be hard pressed to find outside literature a story that suggests that maybe, just maybe, for some people fulfillment can’t be found in family life and in compromising hard on their ambitions. Nor does the movie, unlike Mama’s Family, offer any nice, pat, sitcom-friendly characterizations. Eunice is indeed selfish and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, but her struggles and frustrations still ring all too true. Thelma Harper like her later sitcom incarnation truly loves her family, and if her husband’s brief appearance in the movie and the dialogue about him are any indication was for all intents and purposes a single mother. However, her idea of “maternal support” includes none too passively aggressively slapping down any desire or ambition she deems unrealistic or which will take her children away from her sight, from her son’s decision to move away from their hometown to her daughter just wanting to try to date an athletic and academically successful classmate. Even Philip, while easily the most conventionally likeable character, is suggested to have not tried too hard to bridge the widening gap between him and his family created by his education and success.

Really, it’s at a point where Eunice is almost more of a dramatic character study than a comedy, which I imagine probably put off some fans of the skits. The jokes are fewer and the ones that are there are overall more subtle. Rather than the rip-roaring, facial expression-fueled screaming matches between Eunice and Thelma, there’s quieter character gags peppered in the dialogue, like:

Thelma: Anybody want coffee?
Philip: Not me, Mama. Caffeine doesn’t seem to agree with me.
Thelma: Well, good God, what next? I hope you haven’t gotten any other crazy ideas since you were here last.

Even something that looks like it’s just an extended jokethe tragic fate of Eunice’s beloved pet rabbit, Fluffyends up pushing Eunice to total devastation over her mother’s death in a disarmingly brilliant bit of acting from Carol Burnett. It’s one of those great moments in TV history where the studio audience is unsure whether or not to laugh.

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There are quite a few great subtle character moments too, like Eunice nearly repeating her mother’s harsh words to her when answering a phone call from her prodigal son Bubba. Or Philip’s ever diminishing attempts to communicate with his mother and sister until he finally storms off to visit a (supposed) old boyfriend.

I might be biased in really enjoying this movie and wishing it had more of a place in the cultural memory. For one thing I’ve been a big fan of Carol Burnett for as long as I can remember; for another I perhaps relate a bit too well to Eunice, for reasons I won’t get into (but people who know me will perhaps be able to call me on right away). Still, I do think most people, especially those who have enjoyed the original skits, should head over to YouTube and watch it.

After all, there is at least a little Eunice Harper Higgins in all of us, especially those of us who are frustrated creatives.

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Yes, This Really Happened: The Ghostbusters Fought the Cenobites (Sort Of)

If you were expecting me to talk about a certain controversy over a certain upcoming remake, where both sides are either First Amendment-hating radical feminists or raving misogynists nauseated by just the thought of women starring in a franchise film (at least that’s the impression I’m getting from Twitter), then you don’t know this blog! Rather than talking about the pointless Internet pop culture controversy of this five minutes, I’m much more interested in writing about the time another new “progressive” Ghostbusters team fought the Cenobites from Clive Barker’s Hellraisersort of.

deadliners3This is probably the closest you’ll ever come to the Cenobites officially sharing the screen with a Disney logo, by the way.

The episode in question, “Deadliners”, was in Extreme Ghostbusters, a sequel series to the hit Real Ghostbusters animated series, where a semi-retired Egon mentors a group of college students who have been recruited into becoming a new Ghostbusters team. The group itself was a sort of time capsule into the PC concerns of the late ’90s. There’s Eduardo, a snarky Latino; Kylie, a genius goth girl; Roland, who’s black and “does machines”; and Garrett, an athletic paraplegic. Of course, as is so often the case when a team of creatives try too hard to be sensitive, there are visible cracks in the PC edifice. In this case, the one Latino on the team just happens to also be the team slacker, and the black guy is still the one who does not have much of a role except the guy who drives the car, despite being established as the team techie. It’s perhaps not all that surprising that only Kylie, the one out of the team who feels like a fully fleshed-out character not conceived of by some committee, has made the most appearances out of this team in spin-off comic book media.

Honestly, although I’ve watched at least half the show’s run over the years, I’ve never warmed up to it like I have Real Ghostbusters. Don’t get me wrong; it’s objectively true that this show is a huge step up from what Real Ghostbusters became after it got its notorious makeover from a studio-mandated team of children’s entertainment “experts.” Also it holds up better than you’d assume a show called Extreme Ghostbusters would today. It has a personality apart from its predecessor, doesn’t really try to just copy-and-paste the original characters (even Kylie, who serves much the same function on the team as Egon, never comes across as just Young Fem Egon, at least in the sense that she doesn’t seem to have some quirky personality disorder), and even the show’s art style is one of the better examples of the manga influenced-style that was so popular in the era.

The show also had a darker edge than what the Real Ghostbusters had even in its classic phase. As we’ll see, it didn’t hesitate to have nasty, downright morbid things happen to innocents. Of course, the show also often blunted its own edge. For instance (again, as we’ll see), whatever mayhem and horrors the ghosts inflict on civilians would always get reversed by he end of the episode. I suppose there was no way around it, and in the ’90s it was something of a miracle that a Saturday morning cartoon could be this out and proud with its horror elements. It does make for some pretty inconsistent tones, though, which, well…you guessed it, we’ll see.

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Okay, I’ll finally get to it. The episode “Deadliners” kicks off with some poor kid who works in a diner being restrainedthrough intestinal-looking ropes, no lesswhile the trio of hideously disfigured beings, later referred to as the Vathek, prepare for surgery. Not only does the audience get a bit of a view  of a pan of torture devices, but we get a shot of hooks and chains that totally makes the Hellraiser influence plain.

They even kind of get the motives of the Cenobites right. I mean, obviously they can’t mention the idea from the original movie and the novella it’s based on, The Hellbound Heart, that the Cenobites experiment with the extremes of pleasure and pain and as a result are sought out by hedonists. But we do get this:

“Flesh. To our specimen a suit of skin.”

“To us, sculpting clay.”

“A blank canvas promising infinite aesthetic possibility.”

It’s not the same, but there’s still the same sense of the Vathek acting as extreme artists and explorers in human experience (just in physical appearance instead of sensation) and, depending on how you look at it, also preserving the idea that they think they’re doing their victims some kind of favor. And this is all capped off by the audience losing sight of the Vathek and their victim, hearing only a scream.

You can almost hear the censors snoring.

Much to my own disappointment, though, the opening was the most Clive Barker-y thing in this episode. We get to the Extreme Ghostbusters, who are engaged in the kind of lighthearted bickering which was more interesting if you were a kid in the ’90s and remembered the bland friendliness most protagonists had with each other in ’70s and ’80s cartoons, but which now as an adult makes you wonder if these people just secretly loathe each other.

They’re watching a news report about J.M. Kline, who had mysteriously disappeared for months. Obviously it’s meant to invoke R.L. Stein, especially because the TV reporter refers to him more than once as a “children’s author.” I think the screenwriter was still trying to slip more Clive Barker references past the goalie, especially because we see that the covers of J.M. Kline’s books look like this.

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Can you imagine a book like that making it to kids’ hands past the moral guardians who freaked out over Goosebumps and even just Harry Potter?

While the Ghostbusters talk about Klein, it comes out that Eduardo is a fan and Garrett is an aspiring horror writer, enamored not of the craft but the potential Stephen King-esque fame. Because Garrett is so arrogant, though, his latest story is just Mary Sue fic of Twilight proportions. I do understand why they wanted the one handicapped character to be confident and even a jock, but at least in the episodes I’ve seen it’s less confidence and more being a narcissistic ass.

Naturally it quickly turns out that the news report ties in with their latest assignment, the disappearance of the waiter and ghost sightings around a rural diner and bed-and-breakfast, both of which happen to be near Klein’s mansion. At the bed-and-breakfast Ghostbusters encounter not just the Vathek, but their deformed victims. The Ghostbusters’ proton beams do seemingly destroy the Vathek, but they can quickly and effortlessly rematerialize, so the Ghostbusters barely manage to hold their own, much less save the bed-and-breakfast staff and guests and Roland from being captured by the Vathek.

Kylie is able to connect the dots, thanks to Eduardo recognizing the Vathek from one of Klein’s books, and finds out that the Vathek are entities who have to use a writer and thier work as a conduit to appear in the material world (just imagine the Vathek channeling themselves through Fifty Shades of Grey). With Kylie’s requisite diagnosis out of the way, the remaining Ghostbusters take the fight to Klein’s mansion. There they manage to rescue Roland and find that Klein himself is also a prisoner, literally chained to a desk to write a new book whose completion will end with the Vathek permanently manifested in reality.

Although he is busy being a jackass, to the point that he almost turns his proton pack on one of the Vathek’s converted human victims even though it doesn’t pose any direct threat, Garrett does figure out that the Vathek can be defeated by taking over Klein’s writing. In a genuinely funny twist (un-twist?), Garrett is too crappy a writer to come up with a way for the Vathek to be logically neutralized, so Eduardo simply destroys Klein’s typewriter and manuscript with a proton beam, banishing the Vathek from Earth. All the Vathek’s victims revert to normal (boo!) and Klein writes a new bestseller about his encounter with the Ghostbusters, describing Garrett as the “loudmouth guy in the wheelchair.”

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It’s hard to judge the episode without getting stuck on the Hellraiser-esque intro, which managed to feel more faithful to its inspiration than some of the later sequels in the Hellraiser series! But once you’re past the intro, the novelty isn’t quite as stark. The designs of the Vathekand some of their victimsare still grotesque, and the unseen horror of what the Vathek exactly do to their victims is effective, but you do wind up on more familiar, if slightly darker than normal, late ’90s Saturday morning cartoon territory.

As I mentioned above, though, this was an issue with the show in general. Real Ghostbusterspre-executive meddling, anywaydid a better job of balancing its darker elements with the overall lighthearted core of the show. This was true even when the show tapped into the bleak universe of H.P. Lovecraft, at least until Cthulhu was shown to have one hell of a grudge against Coney Island. It’s still an entertaining episode from a slightly-above-average animated series of the time, but things like the Vathek’s victims acting completely normal after the Vathek are banished despite basically being mutilated and brainwashed is a bit too jarring, at least to an adult viewer.

If you’re still not satisfied, you know someone out there is hammering out a War & Peace-length Pinhead versus the original Ghostbusters fan fic epic, if they haven’t already!