THE BIRDS is a pea soup horror movie – you either love it or you hate it. There’s no in between. But if you’re in the “hate it” camp, I’m here to help swing your pendulum the other way. Because THE BIRDS is Alfred Hitchcock’s best horror movie.
Now, before you start scrolling to the bottom to tap out those angry comments, I want you to know that I still think PSYCHO is a masterpiece. But for a modern audience, it is worth more as a tightly wound crime thriller than an out-and-out horror flick.
For most pre-1970s horror movies, viewers are advised to watch them from the perspective of the audiences of the time. “If you think about what movie effects were like in the ’30s, you’d be totally terrified of FRANKENSTEIN too!” Well that’s all fine and dandy, but sometimes I don’t want to watch horror as an academic. I came to be scared, not to imagine somebody else being scared.
THE BIRDS is one of the few films between cinema’s inception and, let’s say, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in 1968 that still holds up tremendously under the scrutiny of the jaded eye of the modern horror fan. Some of the effects do show their age, but this film is a showcase of some of the best composite cinematography available at the time. It’s not modern perhaps, but it’s still superb, consistently exciting workmanship. And the gore effects are actually pretty phenomenal.
The trick of THE BIRDS lies in its plotting. Melanie Daniels is a young and mischievous San Francisco socialite who meets handsome swain Mitch Brenner by chance in a bird shop. She pretends to be an employee as a prank, but her ability to aid him in procuring a pair of lovebirds for his kid sister is impeded by her utter lack of knowledge about bird species.
The two quarrel good-humoredly and Mitch leaves empty handed. Because her schedule was free that weekend, Melanie decided to purchase a set of birds and deliver them personally to the man with a note admonishing his rudeness. When she discovers he’s on vacation she follows him up the coast to the beautiful town of Bodega Bay. Through a series of misunderstandings and good-natured lies, her prank goes too far as she ends up chartering a rowboat, traveling across the bay, and sneaking into his mother’s house to deliver the birdcage.
Basically, for the first half hour or so, THE BIRDS is a zany romantic comedy until… a lone seagull swoops down from the sky and claws Melanie’s forehead. What follows is a series of increasingly vicious attacks by different flocks of birds that continues throughout the movie. The delightful and charming opening of the film was but a sham to suck you in, get you involved with the characters, and then run them through a conveyor belt of never-ending terror.
Thanks to the amount of time we get to spend with the actual people in the plot before the horror kicks in, the film is also successful as a character study of the interactions of a broken family (Mitch is supporting his widowed mother and his little sister on his own) and a woman who’s trying to find her way in life.
The abrupt transition between these two tones is the film’s greatest trick, pulling the rug out from under what seemed to be a screwball romantic comedy and challenging those established characters by throwing them into an incredibly intense situation. The mere fact that it’s a horror film is the very first shock, and it goes even deeper from there.
There are three people without whom THE BIRDS would be just as silly as its concept: director Alfred Hitchcock (obviously), sound designer Bernard Hermann, and actress Tippi Hedren.
Alfred Hitchcock’s talent at manufacturing suspense is a given, of course, but it is commendable that after having so thoroughly proven himself with previous films, he still sought out ways to make his next movie even bigger and better. The lengthy attack scenes in THE BIRDS are like Hitchcock wrapping his hands around your neck, pausing for a minute, and then slowly squeezing until you’re gasping for air.
One sequence in particular in which a murder of crows attacks a schoolhouse is terrifying, not necessarily because of the fact that the murderous (pun intended) birds are attacking young children, but rather because of the fact that we see them slowly gathering behind Tippi Hedren as she obliviously smokes a cigarette.
We know what’s going to happen. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it. The pressure builds and builds until it finally explodes into a cacophony of squawks, beaks, and wings. The slow burn approach that Hitchcock uses here more or less erases the inherent silliness of the film’s premise, allowing us time to ponder just how many uses a sharp bird’s beak might be put to. Or just how many birds there are in the world. Or the fact that random acts of nature similar to (but perhaps slightly less preposterous than) this happen all the time.
This slow easing into the more absurd elements is handled so masterfully that even when the birds blow up a gas station, it is still closer to THE EXORCIST than BIRDEMIC.
But enough about Hitchcock. Everybody knows he’s great. Bernard Hermann, sound designer and composer of the iconic score for PSYCHO, plays an equally important role in the overall impact of the film. He was originally hired to write a score, but he thought it would be best to keep the film absolutely devoid of music (save for a hauntingly creepy moment set during the children’s choir class).
Instead, the audience’s ears are buffeted with a percussive hurricane of squawks and flaps that underlie and occasionally overtake the action in most every scene. This attack on the eardrums is unsettling in the highest degree and keeps one firmly planted in the universe of the movie no matter how much they might want to get away. This is all thanks to a composer abandoning his ego and making a decision to serve the story instead of just churning out a PSYCHO riff.
Which brings us to Tippi Hedren, the star of the show. Sure, Hermann and Hitchcock did the foundational work, providing a magnificent framework for this woman to thrive. But without her star turn as Melanie, the film would have been rudderless and careening wildly.
Melanie Daniels is a human Barbie doll. She’s gorgeous and fabulous. She’s rich, playful, and irresponsible. She grew up toying with people, paying no mind to the consequences. But after a media snafu in Rome (and through the cavalcade of bird attacks), she has become unmoored, searching for her place in life. Melanie is a wounded woman. She was once free as a bird, but she needs to find a place to land on her feet.
She supports charities. She’s putting a poor Third World child through school. But to what ends should she dedicate her characteristic passion? With an uncaring father and an absentee mother, she has never known the unconditional love of another person, which during the course of her adventure she finds not in Mitch but in his initially untrusting mother.
Melanie’s complicated personality layers and deep hurt are handled with great care by Ms. Hedren, who puts in one of the single best performances in a horror film that I’ve ever seen. Equal parts blasé, fabulous, vulnerable, and tenacious, this woman is a masterpiece of character, both in writing and performance. Without her, THE BIRDS is nothing. She grounds the occasionally shaky effects, and with such a magnetic figure in the center, the horror becomes exceptionally present and visceral.
It’s true that THE BIRDS is much less monumental and groundbreaking than PSYCHO, but in my opinion, in terms of tension, thrills, and character development, it is far more effective as a horror film. Maybe that’s a less noble cause, but to this day it’s incredibly affecting if you’re willing to let it in.
One last thing before I go. The nature of the bird attacks is a mystery. Is it because we’re polluting the Earth? Is it because of the two lovebirds who remain in their cage in the Brenner house? Nobody knows.
That’s the nature of nature – to be unfathomable and illogical. Things happen. Some of them are good. Some of them are bad. Some of them will peck out your eyes.
I would like to think that my theory is supported in the scene where Melanie is trapped in a phone booth outside the diner. Around her she sees representations of fire (the gas station explosion), water (a stray fire hose is sending spray everywhere), air (the birds, naturally), and earth (an overturned cart of cabbages, freshly picked). These four natural elements present in the same scene imply that the bird attacks are merely a force of nature – elemental and inescapable.
And that’s why I’m afraid.