“It’s the end of the world!”
Last year I spent the month of July watching Jaws ripoff films for SAW. Technically it was something like “Summer Blockbuster” month, but I just love the animal attack genre and used the theme as the flimsiest of excuses to watch some of my favorites, like Alligator and Piranha (as well as some ‘classics’ like Orca and Grizzly).
This year I don’t have even that excuse, but I STILL want to watch some animal attack films for summer – so I guess I’m just gonna do that in July from now on. July is Creature Feature month at Fear Flashback! Tell your friends.
To start things off I decided to watch the grandaddy of all animal attack movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I’m sure there are earlier films that featured Mother Nature going all “f%#& around and find out” on mankind – you could make a case for the 1950’s being full of ‘em – but I still mark this as the first of the modern “nature gone mad” films. While there’s plenty of depth to be plumbed in any Hitchcock film, and The Birds in particular, I’m keeping to the shallows of viewing it as a horror film, and a prime example of this sub-genre.
While I’m a big fan of the 1950’s creature features, like Them! And Tarantula, they express a different sort of anxiety, one that has more to do with the consequences of mankind’s obsession with science and progress. About the great unknown that followed the creation of the atomic bomb and the realization that science could be both helpful and harmful. These films often featured gigantic versions of the creatures involved – even when those creatures were human beings. They were about aberrations generated by science that attacked the natural order (as we saw it, anyway), and while they could often threaten the world they were also (usually) a single threat that – when defeated – returned things to the status quo. (Them! stands out as being about a nest of giant creatures.)
Animal attack films, especially those of the 1970’s, are generally more about unintended consequences and disregard for nature herself. They’re also often called “eco horror” films because they tend to focus on the reaction of the environment itself to human existence. Instead of an outsider attack on the natural order (including us), they focus on the natural order fighting back against the real outsider – human beings. Though they often (not always) end with the day being saved, or at least with a kind of equilibrium being restored, there’s no catharsis in them because the catalyst for the assault – our own shortsightedness and lack of concern for the world around us – remains.
These are rambling generalizations on my part, but they’re useful for me in trying to determine what kind of creature feature I’m looking at. The lines do get blurred a lot in the 1970s – Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants and even Night of the Lepus really harken back to the giant creature heyday of the 1950’s – but they’re the exceptions, rather than the norm. So, bottom line, giant monsters/animals are one kind of creature feature, nature attacks are another. I love them both, but I associate the later with the post Silent Spring ecological awareness of the 1970’s. (Not saying that either of these types of films disappeared, with films like Jurassic Park and its fear of genetic engineering gone amok harkening back to the former and ones like The Happening to the latter.)
I’m not even sure why I spent so much time making these distinctions. Particularly when I’ll probably watch some 1950’s creature features this month as well. I guess I just wanted to point out that there are two distinct eras of these kinds of films and that The Birds stands at a pivotal transition point between them.
I have the Alfred Hitchcock Essentials Collection, which includes Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo and The Birds. It was a gift from my wife and includes some of Hitchcock’s most iconic masterpieces. The video quality is generally good, though there are the usual caveats for a heavily effects-laden film from an earlier time. Some of the bird attack sequences have aged poorly, for instance, and matte lines and transparency issues abound. None of this is unexpected, however, and it’s still a damn good quality presentation with a selection of excellent extras. A 4k release of four of these films (excluding North by Northwest) came out last year and is apparently worth the upgrade if you have the equipment.
For streaming options, The Birds is available (with ads) for free on Peacock and for subs on Watch TCM. It can be rented or purchased via the usual vendors as well.
The plot of The Birds, for those few who may not have seen it revolves around socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippy Hedron) who follows lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) to his family home in Bodega Bay, California after a meet-cute in a pet store in San Francisco. A series of bird encounters in the town escalates into waves of apocalyptic attacks by seemingly the entire avian population.
A good third of the film is really a romantic comedy, albeit of a low-key variety. Mitch is a lawyer with little tolerance for socialites and their occasionally criminal “pranks.” Melanie for her part is trying to move forward into a life that’s more than vacations in Rome and those aforementioned pranks, but she still can’t resist running a set of lovebirds up to Bodega Bay to get one over on Mitch. There’s the fish-out-of-water element of a socialite in a small fishing village, the old flame working as a schoolteacher (Suzanne Pleshette) and the overbearing mother clinging to her son since the death of her husband. It’s all well done and enjoyable, but it’s the moments of oddness that keep you watching. The mass of gulls in the sky above San Francisco, the attack on Melanie in the boat, and the larger attack by the gulls at the children’s birthday party. One of the best of these early sequences is at the Brenner house the night after the party. They’re the dissonant chords that reveal something not right in Bodega Bay.
This all comes to a head in one of the best sequences in the film. Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), is in shock from having discovered a neighbor dead from a bird attack. She asks Melanie to retrieve her daughter, Cathy, from the school. Class is in session, so Melanie sits on a bench near the playground to wait. When she sits down there is a single crow on the jungle gym behind her. As she smokes another crow joins it. Then another. Finally, we watch, from Melanie’s point of view, another crow fly from a distant point… to join the hundreds of crows that now wait on the jungle gym and surrounding playground equipment. It’s a startling moment and still incredibly effective.
This is really where the film becomes a horror movie in earnest – despite the shock cut of the dead neighbor’s empty eye sockets and an incident with masses of sparrows. From that point on the bird attacks are no longer a small number of birds, making a nuisance and causing minor damage. They’re full-on apocalyptic assaults on humanity, with masses of wings and a cacophony of sound that overwhelms. (Though modern audiences may find moments of humor due to aging effects.) Even the lulls become fraught with tension, as we wait for what seems like the inevitable next attack.
The Birds is an oddity in that it’s clearly an animal attack film – the birds are just that, regular birds, not mutated or giant versions – but it doesn’t offer one of the main elements of the 1970’s animal attack film: a reason. Almost every animal attack film in the 1970’s points a finger at some action of human civilization as the reason for the assaults. Whether it’s pollution (a favorite seen in films like Prophecy), our willingness to remove creatures from their normal habitat (Alligator) or pesticides (Kingdom of the Spiders) or genetic engineering (Piranha, steering dangerously close to that 1950’s bugbear “things that man was not meant to trifle with”). There’s also no “authorities making it worse” plot line, a part of most animal attack films post-Jaws. While The Birds does feature a scene in which some possible reasons are talked about (in the restaurant), there’s no particular axe that gets sharpened, no reason for the assault. The characters can’t help but wonder if it’s something they (humanity) has done wrong, but if there is the movie doesn’t explain it. Maybe mother nature just doesn’t like our face.
Screenwriter Evan Hunter, (The Blackboard Jungle and innumerable 87th Precinct novels under his pen name of Ed McBain) and Hitchcock had many discussions about possible reasons for the bird attacks – some of which make their way into that conversation in the restaurant, including the idea that Melanie herself is somehow responsible. If they’d decided on any concrete reason I think it would have diminished the film, made it something we could quantify and understand. Instead, the events become more akin to an act of God. In the aftermath of a tornado or earthquake there are always the people asking why me? Why did this have to happen? There are no answers, and The Birds provides nothing in the way of them either.
The Birds is a film with exciting and dramatic set pieces, like the bird attacks on the children, the car explosions and of course the nightmarish assault on Melanie in the upstairs bedroom. For me at this late date, however, it’s the moments just before or just after an attack that contain that frisson of horror, that tingle down the spine. The moment just before the sparrows swarm into the house via the chimney when Melanie see the single sparrow on the hearth. The bird’s eye view (heh) of the town with the gas station and cars on fire as first a single gull sweeps into view followed by another, and another. That last, lingering shot of the car receding into a landscape seething with birds. The rising bird cries on the soundtrack as it fades to black.
The Bottom Line
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s best films, and great horror movie as well. It’s also a pivotal film that points the way to the more naturalistic animal attack horror films of the 1970’s and beyond. While some of the special effects may be too dated for modern audiences, it still retains most of its power to thrill and horrify. As an animal attack film its quality and depth mean that it’s miles above other movies in the sub-genre like Squirm or Day of the Animals, but it also contains some of the cheesy glories that make those films so entertaining for fans like me.
As a random personal note – I used to work at a comic book shop in Portland, Maine and we closed late on Fridays and Saturdays. In the summer I’d drive past a huge, open parking lot at the top of Franklin Ave and trees around it would be filled with crows. Hundreds of them. If I happened to get caught at the light and my windows were down it wasn’t dissimilar to the sound at the end of the film. All of those crows, cawing and fluttering in the gathering dusk. It always made me think of The Birds and I’d breathe a sigh of relief when the light changed and I could put all those wings and beaks behind me.