When the apocalypse comes, Hollywood has taught us to expect something terrifying: an alien invasion perhaps, or a vampire virus. But in Birdemic: Shock and Terror, it is heralded by the arrival of badly animated vultures, whose cheery massacre of the population of California is about as scary as a shark attack on SpongeBob.
Birdemic, a 2008 tribute to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, is fast joining the ranks of Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Room and Troll 2 as one of the most joyously ill-conceived films of all time. Across America, audiences are flocking to cinemas to see its stilted acting, piecemeal editing, and shambolic special effects. The birds, which were created by student animators, look like something out of an Eighties video game, hanging limply in the air as petrified onlookers bat them off with coat hangers.
James Nguyen, the film's director, insists it is not a remake but a project "influenced" by The Birds. But the plot, which revolves around an attractive young couple who fall in love before the ornithological nightmare begins, is almost identical and the film is littered with trademark Hitchcockian devices: the seemingly irrelevant back stories, the overbearing mother. Like his teacher, Nguyen even delays the arrival of the birds for almost an hour to build suspense, although he does so with a romance so agonisingly dull that we'd quite like to see its protagonists pecked to death.
Some scenes are almost carbon copies of their predecessors, like the long, winding drive across Californian countryside, echoing Tippi Hedren's fateful drive up to Bodega Bay. Hedren too is recalled by her replacement, "Nathalie", who is every bit the beautiful Hitchcock blonde (sadly, with far less pizzazz) and there is a bird expert who, like a deus ex machina, appears from nowhere to explain that it is humans, not birds, that are the dangerous animal. There is even a gruesome close-up of a man with his eyes gouged out – almost 50 years on, Hitchcock's sense of what shocks us cannot be bettered.
The film, which cost $10,000 to make, was spotted by a distributor after Nguyen, rejected by the Sundance Film Festival, drove to Utah to promote it anyway, in a van covered in feathers with the name of the film misspelt on the front. Now it may be in line for a big studio release and will be screened for the first time in the UK on 28 May at the Curzon Soho cinema in London.
It is certainly not the first film to draw inspiration from the master of suspense – or to make a meal of it. "Hitchcock is one of the most imitated directors of all time," says Mark Glancy, a film professor at the University of London. "His themes, camera techniques and narratives are so effective and well-established that everyone from Roman Polanski to guys making films out of their basements wants to copy him."
But why do so many of his admirers misfire? Straight remakes have, on the whole, failed to capture the thrill of the originals, from a politically correct telefilm version of Rear Window, starring Christopher Reeve (already in a wheelchair in real life), to Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, starring Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. "The casting was all off," says David Boyd, co-author of After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality. "Bates is supposed to be eerily feeble but Vaughn was too bulky, too menacing. There was something clunky about it. And it doesn't work in colour."
Some Hitchcockian methods have become so ubiquitous that they are all but banned at film school. One example is "the dolly zoom", a disorienting camera technique made famous by Vertigo, in which the subject stays in focus while the background either zooms in or out. It was used to great effect by Steven Spielberg in Jaws to emphasise Chief Brody's moment of terrible clarity, but has been borrowed so many times since then that it is now what one film student calls: "The most egregious, blatantly non-creative, non-cool, total student-film red flag."
Some film-makers reference Hitchcock at random, as if just to show off. In the recent mediocre Jim Carrey comedy, I Love You Phillip Morris, for example, the penultimate scene is suspiciously reminiscent of Bates's furtive final glance in Psycho, although the rest of the film is not Hitchcockian in the least.
"Some of these shots, like the shower scene in Psycho, are so famous a mainstream audience will recognise them instantly," says Boyd. "Often amateur directors are just trying to prove they're not stupid. It's like saying, 'Hey, I realise my film's a bit rubbish, but at least I know my Hitchcock'."
Hitchcock's influence may have spawned an entire genre of second-rate cinema, if one agrees with some critics who argue that with North by Northwest he inadvertently invented the action film. Northwest's seductive mixture of conspiracy, high-octane romance and a hero who is suave but down-to-earth arguably became the template for every thriller thereafter, from the first Bonds (Hitchcock was approached to direct Thunderball) to The Da Vinci Code.
Just what was it that made Northwest so influential and yet so inimitable? "Directors loved the film's glamorous façade," says Glancy. At the time it seemed really slick and modern. But they didn't seem to realise that Hitchcock was actually critiquing that world, trying to break down that façade. They had the handsome man who can save the world and the pretty girl – but no critique whatsoever. Although some of the Bonds are obviously great films," he adds.
D J Caruso, who directed Disturbia, a rather good (uncredited) remake of Rear Window, tripped up when he made Eagle Eye, a film, like Northwest, about a man who travels across the country to clear his name of a crime he didn't commit. Roger Ebert, the celebrated American critic, called it "not an assault on intelligence [...but] an assault on consciousness." Ebert's main criticism was that nothing in it was plausible. But Northwest is jam-packed with things that don't make sense: the bus stop in the middle of nowhere, the crop duster as the weapon of choice.
"It's true that Northwest is joined together with all sorts of things that don't really make sense," says Glancy. "But Hitchcock liked his audience to have what he called a 'refrigerator moment' – the moment when people get back from the movie, reach into the fridge for a beer and suddenly go: hang on, why would that character do that? It's OK to have unlikely events, just so long as the audience don't notice until after the movie." Eagle Eye, like so many action films, crams in so many coincidences and explosions that the audience notices its implausibility straight away.
Of course, it would be unfair to blame Hitchcock for every disaster he inspired, rather like holding Michelangelo responsible for every tacky David keyring that's sold outside the Uffizi. And there are still plenty of remakes with much to admire, like Throw Momma from the Train, a 1987 comedy spin-off of Strangers on a Train, directed by Danny DeVito, which injected the proxy murder tale with modern wit and relevance.
The imitations are unlikely to stop, in any case. George Clooney is rumoured to be reprising Jimmy Stewart's role in Vertigo, as well as taking the lead in a big-budget makeover of The Birds. The latter will also star Naomi Watts and be directed by Martin Campbell, who, that's right, directed the Bond film, Casino Royale.
The setup has great promise but what will really make the difference between turkey and high-flyer, says Glancy, are the special effects. "The Birds is the only Hitchcock that I think can really benefit from a remake because we have better technology now. The original birds are so awful that it's the only film my students can't take seriously. They think it's hilarious."
What would Hitchcock think of it all? No doubt he would have plenty to say about suspense and dolly zooms and unnecessary explosions. But he would perhaps also be flattered by the interest. And find himself some better special effects.