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Sony has released Kaw, a 2007 Sci-Fi Channel original movie starring Sean Patrick Flanery and Rod Taylor, that shares more than just a "birds of a feather" resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. While offering no threat whatsoever to the reputation of that certifiable masterpiece, Kaw isn't too bad, combining a laid-back B-horror movie sensibility with a nicely observed sense of place. Underdeveloped characters and plot elements abound, but let's be honest: the only thing we're really asking of Kaw is to pass the time with some low-grade bird attacks and gore, and it does that well enough.
Sheriff Wayne Merkle (Sean Patrick Flanery) is prepared to pack in his job in the small farming community where he grew up. His wife, Cynthia, a professor of cultural anthropology, can't find work in such a rural, remote place, so Wayne decides to sell his family home and follow her to the city. Unfortunately, Wayne doesn't realize that his last day in office will be a terrifying ordeal that will shake the very foundations of the small farming community.
After he receives a call about a curiously mutilated farmer, Wayne answers another call about loner Clyde (Stephen McHattie), the town's former drunk and school bus driver (?) who has been shooting off his shotgun within city limits. Clyde tries to tell Wayne that he was attacked by a flock of large, aggressive ravens, but Wayne shrugs it off, chalking up the tale to Clyde's eccentricities. But soon, Wayne realizes that Clyde was right when the bodies start piling up in town, and he sees for himself the awesome power of these ravens to attack and kill. But why are they ravens attacking the town? Evidently, the Mennonite farmers who share an uneasy relationship with the "English" majority in town, have the answer, particularly elder Jacob (Vladimir Bondarenko) and Oskar (John Ralston), and their secrecy about the raven hordes very well may doom the entire town.
If you start to look too closely at Kaw, it becomes frustratingly clear that it frequently misses the marks it could have achieved. Major plot threads come and go with little or no development, and the main reason for that may be the fact that the film (perhaps due to budgetary limitations) fails to sufficiently populate the film. We never feel it's a "town," because we only see a few isolated characters. The "last-day-on-the-job" aspect of the sheriff's job doesn't resonate, because the film never establishes a true sense of community. I can't feel a sense of weight to his decision, if I don't understand what he means to the community. The Clyde character makes little sense (he's the town drunk...and the school bus driver?), and it doesn't help that McHattie plays the role with a distinctly reluctant air (almost the entire film is played with his hat bill pulled down over his eyes).
Particularly disheartening is the wasted efforts of that old pro, Rod Taylor (one of my all-time favorites). Why didn't the filmmakers spend more time establishing his local doctor role, and perhaps letting him work with the sheriff to actually solve the mystery of the attacking ravens? Frankly, Taylor should have been in the film from Scene 1, and been allowed to move along the discovery of the central plot. As for the potentially interesting clash between the Mennonite and "English" culture, that's reduced to a standard suspense scene of Cynthia listening in to Oskar's and Jakob's discussion of their "sins" regarding the mad cow's disease that's supposedly affecting the ravens. All of these potentially interesting threads - the departing sheriff, the town drunk who first suspects the attacks, the town doc who could have been used to detect the effects of the disease, and the clash between Mennonites and the "English" - are all abbreviated to allow plenty of bird attack scenes.
The CGI effects for the ravens range from fairly good (whenever the birds are just sitting or kawing) to average (whenever they fly), but some of the logic of the attacks stretches credibility. The attack on the school bus (which again is noticeably underpopulated) has the ravens picking up sizeable rocks and dive-bombing it, smashing out the windows. Seeing the sizes of those rocks in comparison to the already large ravens (they're a seriously large, menacing-looking bird), those rocks would have to be pretty damn heavy - could the ravens really pick them up with their claws? I don't normally indulge in that kind of nitpicking - after all, movies are fantasies and who cares if they make logical sense - but after awhile in Kaw, you begin to notice the cracks.
The finale, an attack on the diner and gas station (um...just like a similar sequence in The Birds) is also badly handled, with characters fighting off birds while other characters in the frame apparently do nothing. Shooting action sequences in tight, confined spaces is indeed the hardest kind of action shooting to block, and you need to cover your angles and work out an entire choreography to make the pieces fit together. That doesn't happen in Kaw (birds are getting in the back, attacking people, while other people stand by windows, holding up boards and presumably watching them?), so the viewers are reduced to shutting off their brains and just going along for the next attack, punctuated by some nicely straight-ahead gore shots of the birds plucking meat off their victims (by the way: how do the birds seem to incapacitate their victims so quickly? A few pecks to the head, and they're down for the count?). Director Sheldon Wilson does have an admiral sense of place and location, with the wintery, isolated farm fields of Ontario shown to good effect here; the town itself (not counting the seemingly non-existent inhabitants) feels correct. It's just a shame that nicely observed atmosphere didn't have a more thought-out narrative to ground it; as it stands, Kaw's story doesn't have all that much meat on its bones.
The anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen video image for Kaw looks quite good, with the frequent dark nighttime scenes holding their blacks well. Color values are nicely balanced, and I didn't see any egregious compression artifacting.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 stereo audio mix is robust, with plenty of rear speaker action during the frequent bird attacks. A French 5.1 mix is also available, with English and French subtitles, as well as close-captioning options.
A couple of nice extras are included in the Kaw disc. First, we have a great interview by director Wilson with Rod Taylor, who gives a wide-ranging look at his career. He's just like you'd think he'd be: gracious, self-effacing, and an easy raconteur. It runs 22 minutes. Next, we have The Making of Kaw, a 24-minute behind-the-scenes featurette on what was entailed in getting this production off the ground. The bird training and wrangling scenes are particularly interesting.
As a non-think time-waster, Kaw is perfectly acceptable in the made-for-cable horror mold. Unfortunately, there are kernels of good ideas laying around Kaw which even the ravaging ravens don't peck at, making Kaw ultimately, a frustrating viewing experience. A rental would be the best choice for this competent but low-flying effort.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.