Horror movies. We all know what they are and what they should look like by now. Thanks to the pioneering works Friday the 13th and Halloween, we know that horror movies are movies with strange, demented killers stalking and killing vulnerable teenagers who also happen to be jerks. This was the formula for horror movies laid down in the late 1970s and some pretty fine work followed in the trails they blazed. We had movies like April Fools Day and Sleepaway Camp–both of which I assume to be legitimately good movies in the horror genre. But before all that jazz was a filmmaker who worked in the era of safety and hokeyness. Back in the 1960s, horror movies were seen as simple, b-movie fun, not unlike today’s dead teenager movies. We know what they look like, and they’re always good for a few safe thrills.
The world was vastly underprepared for the nihilistic and fundamentally unsafe works of Alfred Hitchcock. I’m unaware of how many movies of Hitch’s I am allowed to call prototypical horror, but I do know the two nominees everyone else knows: Psycho and The Birds. These were movies unlike any seen in a cinema before. Deranged killers whose aim fell on the protagonist. Unexplained devastation and unanswered questions. The Birds stands, at this moment, as my favourite pre-Night of the Living Dead horror movie. It should be safe and it should be nice, hokey fun. What it ends up being is a terrifying film where no one is safe and no one knows why and nothing is ever resolved.
It begins safely enough with a woman named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) in a pet store. A man named Mitch (Rod Taylor) comes in and proceeds to treat her as an employee. Their flirtation is chaste, but imbued with a real sense of romance. You get the feeling that these two, while feeling each other out, already value the other’s presence and long for more of it. Mitch pranks Melanie so well that she determines to prank him back by delivering him the two birds he’d specified: a pair of lovebirds. When she finds out that he’s gone back home to an idyllic little village on the bay, she follows him there and deposits them in her living room.
There are quite a few safe scenes that establish the setting of Bodega Bay. Melanie meets a schoolteacher, a post office master, a restaurant owner. She has nice friendly chats with all of them about where to find Mitch and how to drop off the birds he’d requested for his eleven year old sister’s birthday. Melanie is very composed–almost entirely artificial. Her presence on film is delineated almost entirely by what she’s wearing and how her hair is styled. It explains why she’s wearing the same outfit for–oh, but never mind. Eventually, she drops off the birds and to make a long story short–(TOO LATE)–is invited to stay with Mitch and his family.
When birds start killing people.
It was a common complaint around the release of Cloverfield over two and a half years ago, “but what is the monster, exactly?” At all times in that movie, the audience expects a man in a white coat to enter the scene and explain, slowly and patiently, just what the monster is and why it’s destroying Manhattan as though they were wooden blocks in a child’s playpen. Matt Reeves and JJ Abrams knew, just as Hitchcock told them with The Birds, that the real menace is not the quantifiable, explainable monster. The real menace is the monster whose motivation you cannot fathom. After the birds begin attacking Bodega Bay, several characters ask repeatedly, why are the birds trying to kill us?
Hitchcock, as Romero would imitate in his genre-busting horror masterpiece Night of the Living Dead, doesn’t bother explaining. If you’re the kind of audience member that would be more scared by birds that are killing you if they had a sixty page, typed and bound manifesto, you are not the kind of audience member to be scared. And really, the comparison with Romero is rather accurate. What is The Birds but a zombie film without the zombies? The birds attack for no reason. Society falls to chaos within days because of it. The body count starts high and keeps on trucking up. There may or may not be a larger social message at play here. Honestly, I was too terrified by birds amassing on every surface they could perch upon to interpret the film for any greater meaning. It’s scary. It’s meant to be scary. I say mission accomplished, Hitch.
The Birds also wins on my criteria for a damn good horror film by having legitimate characters that I can root for. I like Melanie and her playful sense of flirtation; I like Mitch and his determination to beat her at her own game. Their drama with Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), is a legitimately involving subplot whose grand emotional problems are resolved/swept under the rug by hordes and hordes and untold hundreds of birds gathering to kill them. For some reason, everyone seems to get their priorities straight when birds are coming to rip and tear your flesh.
Now, I should warn the non-film buff out there that The Birds is a Hitchcock movie, and Hitchcock was never an actor’s director. An actor once made the mistake of asking Hitch what their motivation was. His response? “Your salary.” Those two words sum up all of the direction he has ever given an actor on set, and as such, every man was for themself so to speak. As such, the performances in this movie are extremely up and down–no one is consistently good, a few people are consistently bad and everyone has a couple moments or two of being more wooden than Keanu Reeves.
But Hitchcock also understood more about movies than the actors in his films did. The movie isn’t called The Humans, after all. It’s called The Birds, and those birds are flying through your windows to eat you alive. THREE AND A HALF STARS