Does The Birds Live on into the 21st Century? A Film Review of The Birds by Christopher Wostenberg
While I do not mind horror films, I hardly go out my way to watch them and even less so to own them. Most of the time, I find them overly cliché to point that they are overly predictable, which has led to the subgenre of meta-horror films that includes the Scream series, Funny Games, and Cabin in the Woods. Obviously, horror movies have their place in cinema and great ones exist, but they seem far and few between. Most of the time they do not hold up to a second viewing as they rely on plot twists and unsuspecting shocks that are dulled on repeat viewings.
Looking over my collection of films, I decided for this go around my Halloween movie would have to come from the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. This led to two choices, Psycho and The Birds, as his other movies are more suspense thrillers than true horror; the former invokes excitement while the later invokes fear within the audience. Whereas Psycho would be the obvious first choice as it was the originator of slasher films, a subgenre of horror, along with Powell’s Peeping Tom. I choose The Birds as it demonstrates how even Hitchcock’s second tier films are worth watching and have been influential on future generations of film makers.
The movie starts out as a romantic comedy film, as Melanie Daniels and Mitch Brenner meet at pet store as Mitch is planning on buying lovebirds for his younger sister Cathy’s, birthday. Mitch plays a prank on Melanie by pretending she is a saleswoman. Although upset by the whole thing, Melanie finds herself attracted to Mitch. Later, Melanie delivers the lovebirds to Mitch at his weekend address in Bodega Bay, where she meets Cathy, Lydia Brenner (Mitch’s mom) and Annie Hayworth (Mitch’s ex-lover). It is at this point that the movie changes to a horror film as the birds within Bodega Bay start to become a menace.
Over the course of the next few days, Melanie is attacked by a single seagull; Cathy’s party is cut short due to a band of seagulls attacking; the Brenner house is engulfed in sparrows, and crows attack the local school children. All of these attacks seemed focused on Melanie, making the townspeople disbelieve her stories of the attacks at first. Then, after witnessing another attack at the center of town, the townspeople blamed Melanie for the assaults. After one final attack on the Brenner house, Lydia, Cathy, Mitch and Melanie flee Bodega Bay for San Francisco to get care for their wounds, leaving Bodega Bay overrun by birds.
I will be the first to admit that the film is dated, especially in the special effects department when it comes to the bird attacks. Also, I already mentioned that it is not in the running as the best Hitchcock film. But the movie is worth watching as it is a transition between the early 20th century horror films, which included monster movies and sci-fi horror cinema, with the gore and realism of the latter half of the century.
Early horror dealt with man-made creatures, like Frankenstein’s monster and giant insects caused by atomic radiation, and abnormalities in nature, like vampires, werewolves and the Gill-Man from The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Though the stories had some basis in reality and served as a moral/cautionary tale, it was unlikely that the audience would ever encounter the horrors from the films. The Birds changed this by having everyday creatures, which the audience could not escape, as the source of horror. Unlike the sci-fi horror films, nothing man did caused the birds to go crazy in the film and start attacking. In fact, the whole movie has the characters and the audience debate the rationale behind the events and the best resolution. Even at the end, the birds are still present and nothing has been done to stop them or even explain why any of it has happened. So in a sense, the movie never really ends, much like the horror franchises of the latter half of the 20th century.
Additionally, the realistic nature of the source of the horror became a staple of the horror genre to come; think Jaws, Deliverance, Blair Witch Project, and Hostel. The films of the latter half of the century chose familiar places in which to scare their audience just like Hitchcock did in both Psycho and The Birds. But unlike the later horror movies to come, The Birds sets most of its scariest scenes in broad daylight making it very evident what is going on. Most horror movies post 1970s hid behind darkness, where creatures and monsters are never really seen in order to compel the viewer’s imagination to provide explanations of what is going on, and to be able to scare them with things jumping out of the dark. For me, attacks in broad daylight are scarier because no matter what, there is no hiding and no avoiding the assailant. Most people feel safe in the daytime and in familiar settings, but Hitchcock made sure to play on that assumption by having the attacks occur in a real place (Bodega Bay) at familiar locations (a house, a school playground, and a gas station) and during daylight. Thus, Hitchcock was bolder than his followers for having the action take place during the day.
The mostly daytime setting of the film highlights the gore Hitchcock was able to put in the film even with the studio censorship of the ‘60s. Similar gore as in The Birds would be the staple of horror films to come. Notably, blood is shown, albeit extremely fake, as the birds attack their victims. In one scene near the end, blood is even splattered on the wall. But the most horrific scene in the context of gore is shown halfway through the movie when Lydia comes across the dead body of a neighbor with his eyes gouged out. While tame compared to our standards of horror films today, The Birds scenes of bodily damage, along with giallo horror films of Italy during the ‘60s and ‘70s, marked the advent of the horror industry’s obsession with showing more and more violence and gore.
Favorite Scene: Hitchcock is the master of setting up scenes, so there are always multiple scenes from his movies to pick from as a favorite scene, and The Birds is no different. For me, my favorite scene is when Melanie is waiting for Annie to finish her lesson at school. As Melanie waits outside, she smokes a cigarette and listens to the students inside rehearsing a song. Her back is to the playground, but the audience occasionally sees a crow land. Eventually, Melanie looks up to see a crow flying to the playground. She tracks the bird until it lands, where there is now a full murder of crows engulfing the playground.
The scene is great for building tension. First, unlike Melanie, the audience is partly aware of what is going on as we see a few crows land prior to the final reveal. As the audience, we are purposely meant to be distracted as we focus more on Melanie and her nervousness waiting for the lesson to end. Second, the scene is very quiet, except for the children singing off screen in the schoolhouse. It is only afterwards that the audience hears the flapping of the wings. This makes it odd when the noise of the wings returns and makes us realize that, like Melanie, we “zoned out” and are not aware of the surroundings. Third, the scene occurs very naturally as Melanie and the audience follow the single crow until it gathers with the rest of the crows. The following of the crow deliberately avoids the all too common horror cliché of the jump scare caused by a sudden cut and increased noise. Finally, the scene occurs a little over halfway through the movie, so the characters and the audience already have experienced some bird attacks. We know of the threat that is approaching, but we are still in denial until we see the murder of crows. The whole scene builds suspense over a couple of minutes so that the audience is as terrified as Melanie.
Even though The Birds has some dated film techniques, it is worth watching for its influence on modern horror films by pushing the boundaries of fear within our everyday lives. It clearly shows how a master filmmaker, like Hitchcock, can take a simple idea, bird attacks, and form a movie that goes beyond the expectations of the audience, making them go through a range of emotions within the course of two hours. I would love to hear your opinion on whether or not it has stood the test of time.
Next time, I plan on reviewing Spike Lee’s seminal film on racial tension, Do the Right Thing. Until next time, I leave this quote uttered by Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network as he tries to wake up the television audience, “… Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad! . . . . You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’’’