Monday, July 8, 2019

“Birds Invented Flying, Remember?” - Beaks (1986)

We have not delved into the classic filmography of Mexico's Rene Cardona, Jr. since we discussed one of his finest films, The Night of 1,000 Cats (1972). Let us jump ahead 14 years to 1986 and turn to Mr. Cardona, Jr.'s similarly animal-themed film Beaks, a jet-setting adventure of international proportions starring heartthrobs Christopher Atkins and Michelle Johnson.

Some of your universe's critics are characteristically uncharitable about Beaks (also known as Beaks: The Movie, Birds of Prey, and Evil Birds, not to mention The Birds 2: The Fear in Italy). Reviewer Evil-Dead-Girl writes, "The acting was worse than I've seen at an elementary school Christmas play- the script too, for that matter." Reviewer wes-connors writes, "There are some promising scenes, but the pace and editing are astonishingly bad - perhaps no editing was done, and Mr. Cardona tried to make a movie with the footage he had." And reviewer EdYerkeRobins writes, "The acting is bad, the deaths are gory and goofy at best (although I must admit the hawk tearing one guy's eye out is pretty funny), and the thin plot is worn out within the first 10 minutes of the film, and drags on and on and on to an ending that makes no sense."

Read on to properly appreciate Rene Cardona, Jr.'s Beaks...

The film opens in Spain with shots of a huge landfill and a huge flock of seagulls (not the band). More disturbingly, a man shoots pigeons released from boxes. With the aid of journalists Christopher Atkins and Michelle Johnson, the man attempts to shoot down birds in flight while blindfolded (i.e., the man is blindfolded, while it is difficult to tell if the pigeons are blindfolded at some point). Ms. Johnson, an on-camera reporter, says to the camera, “This is considered to be one of the most remarkable feats in the history of marksmanship.”

Mr. Atkins, who videotaped the demonstration, asks the man, “Why did you do that?”

“For pleasure,” he replies.

Ms. Johnson and Mr. Atkins are later assigned to a new story: chicken attacks. “It’ll make great copy,” the news director says. “The attack of the killer chickens.” (It must be admitted, that is nothing if not great copy.)

Elsewhere, at a big Spanish villa, we witness the first bird attack on an elderly gentleman.

Nearby, Ms. Johnson narrates her news report. “It happened here. These coops are filled with happy chickens. Harmless creatures, or so it would seem. Then one day, for no apparent reason, they launched an attack on their owner. The feathered mutiny spread and these turkeys joined the fray...and it’s not even close to Thanksgiving.” (It is hard to say whether the Thanksgiving joke would play well, given the reporters are working in Spain.)

The chicken owner who was attacked, and seems to be perfectly healthy, gives an interview to Ms. Johnson, who for some reason stands twenty feet from him at all times, holding her handheld microphone away from her to capture his voice. “The chickens got together, like they were following some kind of orders.”

Ms. Johnson performs a test in the church where another attack occurred. She lets a canary loose. It flits around for a while, then brushes against the cheek of the chicken owner before flying away outside. The chicken owner brushes blood from his cheek. The birds really are attacking people, albeit ineffectively!

Elsewhere, other birds continue to cause inconvenience, mostly unseen. An air traffic controller radios to a small plane, “It’s impossible to land. There’s a huge flock of birds flying over the airstrip. They’ve already caused two crashes.”

The pilot tries to divert to another landing strip, but birds start committing suicide by smashing into the plane and also his face.

The plane changes course. In a jungle (presumably nearby), we see an explosion.

Ms. Johnson and Mr. Atkins visit the old man in the Spanish villa who was attacked by birds. He tells them, profoundly, “Birds invented flying, remember? Who knows how they communicate with a different species? I really don’t know.” He tells them there is always a flock of doves following him “as if I were a marked man.”

Mr. Atkins has a rational explanation. “Do you think since your attack you’ve created a fear, and maybe you’re giving off some vibrations that’s provoking the birds into attacking?”

He replies that the birds are preparing a war. “Billions of birds at war with mankind.” He tells them that a town was attacked by birds 30 years ago, and he knows two of the survivors, who live in Rome, so Ms. Johnson and Mr. Atkins travel to Rome.

The attack victims in Rome are a man and woman living together in an apartment. They are both about 30 years old. In a flashback, we see the woman as a baby, revealing that she must have a truly capacity for memory.

The man tells the reporters, oddly, “I guess what Susan and I have come to feel is exactly what the birds felt. Hate.”

Ms. Johnson summarizes: “So what you’re saying is their natural instincts led them to defend their natural ecological balance, a last effort for the survival of their species?” She jerks the microphone toward the man’s face.

He replies, “One other thing. It’s hypothetical, of course. Nature has been pushed to the wall. And possibly, if they fight back hard enough, a little balance could be restored.”

Susan adds, “Not if...their contamination...has gone too far.”

The reporters, unfortunately, do not ask about this “contamination,” and it is never brought up again.

It is time for another attack, this time in Puerto Rico. An American tourist family arrives in a pigeon-filled park. The father says, with perhaps some geographic confusion, “Remember the park I told you about in New York? Well, this is it.”

After about ten minutes of taking pictures, the mass of pigeons takes flight, unthreateningly, and the family runs back to their car, safe at last.

Back at the Spanish villa, the old man spouts a string of nonsense sentences, including “You’re just like us” and “Welcome home,” before he makes a falcon explode with his shotgun.

Like most reporters, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Atkins are staying in a luxury hotel suite in Rome, where we see that they are romantically involved. They share champagne and make love in a bubble bath (after, incidentally, Ms. Johnson has already taken a shower). They receive a call about an elderly couple in a farmhouse who were torn to pieces by gray pigeons.

On the scene, Ms. Johnson tells the news camera the bodies were mutilated, “the victims of doves. The same white doves that have always been a universal symbol for peace. And they have now declared a war. A mysterious war. Against mankind.”

In Puerto Rico, the tourist family goes from bad (annoyed by pigeons in a park) to worse. Their right rear tire goes flat suddenly and for no reason, so they look for help at a nearby RV. The kids open the RV door and find that the birds have somehow propped a young man’s body against it so that it hanged out when the door is opened.

The film cuts to the inside of the tourists’ car, presumably after the tire has been fixed somehow. The father comforts the kids after their traumatic discovery: “Stop whimpering, and you too, okay? I know what we saw was awful, but it’s over. Try to get a hold of yourselves.”

For some reason, the father drives down a sandy beach rather than the paved road. Unfortunately, the car gets caught in the sand while a flock of seagulls (not the band) wheels out over the ocean. Showing the same judgment illustrated by driving on sand, the family decides to get out of the car and run to a restroom building/visitor center.

They are joined by the girlfriend of the dead man in the RV, and when the birds make it inside the building, they simply run outside and jump into the water.

In one of the film’s most spectacular suspense sequences, a hang-gliding couple is attacked by hawks, their talons plucking out the man’s eye.

Back by the dock, the surviving family and the RV man's girlfriend steal a boat and sail safely into the sunset, never to be seen again.

Ms. Johnson and Mr. Atkins follow a crowd and find the Mayor of Spain (I guess) and his chauffeur entering a bar and ordering brandies. Radar has picked up millions of birds converging on the town where they are working. “My God, what’s going on?” asks Ms. Johnson.

“We’re in a very vulnerable position here,” says the Mayor of Spain.

“You mean we’re sitting ducks,” quips Mr. Atkins. He and Ms. Johnson come up with a plan to concentrate the population of the town in one spot rather than evacuate. Unfortunately, the chauffeur reminds them that the roads are blocked by car accidents. Mr. Atkins is glum: “Those birds certainly know what they’re doing.”

They decide, perhaps somewhat obviously, to put everybody on a train. Ms. Johnson walks down the corridor of the train, helping people until she is waylaid by two punks. “Call Colonel Sanders and he’ll take care of these birds and we’ll have them prepared for lunch,” says one of the Spanish punks in his Minnesota accent.

The filmmakers then take a page from, of all films, Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) as the old man in the Spanish villa’s family holds a birthday party for his granddaughter. He tells his daughter, “I don’t like the look of those birds. There’s just too many of them.” They all retreat into the villa. The grandfather rescues the last child, who was distracted by a noisemaker, and carries her through a cloud of pigeons.

Sadly, the old man is either killed by the pigeons or suffers a heart attack. Either way, he tragically dies under a carpet of pigeons.

A siege ensues inside the house, where the deer trophies on the walls are even creepier than the pigeons that have made their way into the house.

Back on the train, the engineers become fearful when a flock of sheep blocks the tracks. Of course, the only option is for Mr. Atkins to climb out of the locomotive and cut a wire fence so the sheep can migrate off the tracks. This heroic action leads some of the many punks on the train to open a window, letting in a few pigeons, and seconds later the birds are crashing through all the windows, as single birds are now easily able to smash through glass.

The passengers leave the affected train car so Mr. Atkins can disengage it from the train and his friend the soldier can lob two grenades into it, blowing up some of the pigeons.


“Right into their own trap,” Mr. Atkins says, savoring the irony of birds dying in a train car (I guess).

Back at the villa, the woman carries two kids through the house, frightened that at any moment the pigeons will fly off the skulls of murdered deer, antelopes, and other horned mammals.


They find a gaggle of children hiding in the basement and make their way to a car, in a reference to the ending of the Hitchcock film. “I think the birds are gone,” says one of the kids. They drive away.

Ms. Johnson sits in a studio and speaks to camera. “In all parts of the world, the birds appear to have returned to their normal behavior. All attacks have ceased, and we seem to be at peace. The nightmare ended the same way it started: suddenly and inexplicably. Perhaps they knew they could never defeat the most cruel killer of all. Man.”

The film cuts to shots of water, however, and we see that nature is still restless, though I am not sure whether it is supposed to be insects or fish or some other animal that will turn on man next in some frightening, if unspecified, way.

The End

While the casual viewer will miss the similarities between Beaks and Hitchcock's The Birds, the slightly less casual viewer will notice some similarities, and the not-at-all casual viewer will appreciate that Beaks improves on The Birds in several ways. For one thing, it gives an explanation of why the birds are attacking: man has taken too many liberties with nature, and it is time for nature to fight back. While this lesson is not as explicit as it was in The Bees (1978), in which the bees figure out how to communicate directly with humans, it is well established in The Beaks through the time-honored tradition of having actors repeat the message over and over. Another improvement over The Birds is its series of international settings ranging from Puerto Rico to Spain. The Birds, much to its detriment, does not include bird attacks on motorboats or hang gliders or trains. Another thing The Birds does not include, again to its detriment, is exploding pigeons.

The train sequence in Beaks is one of the most compelling and suspenseful train sequences in any animal-attack film, and it shows the realistic dangers of vicious birds that can plan strategic attacks on humans. After the birds break into the train car, it is only Christopher Atkins's quick-wittedness that saves the day, that and the many hand grenades carried by the Fidel Castro-like soldiers.

Finally, Beaks has a satisfying ending, in which the birds stop attacking. "I think the birds are gone." What a powerful statement about the vicissitudes of nature.