15 Days of Horror – The Birds

I ended up skipping yesterday; I’ll catch up this weekend.

At this point I think Hitchcock’s crime thrillers are his best work—North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window—but there’s no way to overstate his impact on both cinematography and the horror genre. Hitchcock had a long and distinguished career, producing dozens of movies in the ’20s and ’30s which are classic thrillers in their own right, such as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Jamaica Inn. And he kept making suspenseful films up until his death.

I knew I’d end up with a Hitchcock on the list, but the one that came to mind first wasn’t Psycho; while that one had a major impact, particularly influencing the slasher genre, and shocked the world with the shower scene and ending, I think it’s a little overrated as a horror movie. (Heresy, I know.)

No, the one that came to mind was The Birds.

There’s a reason for that. See, mom would talk about going to the drive-in growing up, and her parents would go see the “adult” stuff after they thought she’d fallen asleep. Only, she usually hadn’t, and in one such case had the crap scared out of her by The Birds. In an irony of cyclical events, I saw it when I was really young and it scared the crap out of me. (Trust me, if you see this movie at a young age, it will get your overactive imagination working in overdrive for a few days.)

Compared to modern films, this one is antiquated: there’s no sexuality (unlike Psycho), very little blood, and only one fast shot of gore (the dead old man with his eyes pecked out that scared the shit out of mom). The stuffed birds and proto-blue screen technology are so fake it’s painful. Yet Hitchcock had a reputation for a reason, and it’s his directing that makes the film a horror classic.

Why is it scary?

Hitchcock was a master of thrills and suspense long before the thriller genre was coined, and this movie is a showcase of his tension-building. The pacing is spot-on, with plenty of memorable scenes: Tippi Hedron waiting outside the schoolhouse while birds slowly line up on the telephone wires and playground equipment. Trapped in a phone booth, and then diner, during a catastrophic bird attack. The final scenes, escaping through fields covered in squawking birds. And the final fight scene, reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead: normal people holed up in a house, fighting for survival.

What I think makes the film “scary” is its idea: the attack by unexpectedness. Birds are everyday, normal objects; without warning, they suddenly become violent, perturbed, hostile. Nobody expected harmless birds to become dangerous, so there’s no safety measures in place, no expectations for them to be hostile. Would you ever assume that a bird is dangerous? It’s one of the best horror movies taking average, non-threatening things and making them into killers. (Though, when that list covers the spectrum of deadly threats as killer slow-motion rabbits, to killer beds, to killer elevator shafts killing people in the same ways normal elevator shafts do, birds have a leg up: they’re already twice as scary as half that shit. They’re smart, have huge beaks, and can crap on your head.)

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