Film School Reject:
Birdemic—Shock and Terror

FILM, Film Festivals

A ‘disasterpiece’ earns its wings.

Like some lesser example of a rabid 48 Hour Film Project with pretensions to greatness, it’s easy to see why James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror has quickly become a new entry into the cult pantheon of bad cinema. Professedly inspired (read: grafted) from such diverse source material as Hitchcock’s The Birds (obvious—plus Tippi Hedren gets a ‘cameo’ of sorts), An Inconvenient Truth (it is directly and awkwardly name-checked in the dialogue), and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Birdemic fulfils Nguyen’s “Romantic-Thiller” genre by supplying an opening half devoted to a dreadfully realised love story (almost bereft of action), which then suddenly transitions into a schlocky, laughable attempt at horror. Throw in a couple of pro-environment soap-box monologues from an inexplicably present ‘professor’, as well as the kind of hungry-eyed ‘tree-hugger’ you’d warn your kids away from, and you’ll feel your brain start to melt in a haze of beatific oblivion. And did I mention animated birds? Or defensive use of coat hangers?

Birdemic contains the requisite C-movie staples of wooden dialogue matched with sub-par acting à la Troll 2, low budget effects of the type seen in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, and a somewhat delusional if highly motivated director as typified by Tommy Wiseau of The Room fame (also screening at NZIFF 2010). However, Nguyen’s film ups the ante in most of these areas, taking things to whole new level by adding the dimension of complete technical ineptitude.

Whereas the other filmmakers above exhibit a basic level of technical proficiency (or work with staff that do), almost every technical aspect of Nguyen’s ‘masterwork’ is marred to the point that it defies belief the movie ever made it into a cinema. Large portions of shots are completely overexposed and mismatched with other shots in a number of scenes; sound is so poorly captured that in many cases you can’t actually hear the dialogue over background sounds of the wind or the sea; and in order to deal with the noise present between pieces of dialogue, Nguyen blanket mutes all sound! In terms of editing, the ‘handles’ at the beginning and end of shots have been left in (possibly to pad the film out to 90 minutes). And let’s not forget the titular birds: think animated GIFS decorating a mid-90s Geocities website, and you’ll be very much on target.

While the likes of Troll 2 and The Room can truly be classified as ‘bad films’ Birdemic fits the label of an ‘average bad home movie’. But what Birdemic shares in common with these other films is a sincerity of execution that sets it apart from cynical attempts to capitalise on a marketplace for bad cinema. Granted, it’s a terrible piece of filmmaking—possibly the worst ever to grace any New Zealand International Film Festival screen—but it also exudes, in its own way, a love of cinema which allows it to be taken in the spirit it was made. The fact remains that there will always be a limited audience for a film like this, and that audience will be laughing the whole way through. But it won’t be, as Ricky Gervais coined it, “the laughter of hate”; rather, laughter full of warmth and appreciation that someone has managed to succeed in making a film in spite of the numerous barriers—most of all, themselves.

Dir. James Nguyen
USA, 2008; 92 minutes
Featuring: Alan Bagh, Whitney Moore, Adam Sessa, Janae Caster, Colton Osborne, Danny Webber, Mona Lisa Moon, Catherine Batcha.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.