We continue our journey through a month of frightening, bloody and violent films. For more, check out our 31 Days of Horror homepage.
Synopsis: Short version: Birds realize they outnumber humans about a million to 1 and decide strips of bread just aren’t cutting it any more. Worldwide attack ensues.
Long version: Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), young, San Francisco socialite,
stalks follows a potential boyfriend, the handsome Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), to his lakeside home in the Northern California town of Bodega Bay. There, Melanie meets his mother (Jessica Tandy) and young sister (Veronica Cartwright), and become acquainted with the small town. However, strange things are about to take place.
Out of nowhere, the local members of the Avian 404 – read, the birds – decide it’s high time to turn their beaks and claws on the human population. Hitting sporadically and in large swarms, the birds begin attacking the fine people of Bodega Bay. The residents, some believing it to be a sign of the apocalypse, others not having a clue why this is happening, but all of them scared senseless, try to take refuge indoors. But it soon dawns on them that their only way of survival is to escape the town.
The master of suspense, director Alfred Hitchcock, fills The Birds with numerous moments that could be deemed more than memorable. Certain scenes in The Birds stick in your head and make you eyeball every bird hanging on a low branch days after watching the film.
The most memorable of these involves Melanie visiting a local school, sitting outside on a bench, and catching a quick smoke. Behind her sits a jungle gym that four crows sit on. Hitchcock cuts away from the jungle gym, then back, a number of times, each time revealing more and more crows are sitting on it. When Melanie realizes what is going on, the jungle gym is covered with dozens of birds, and then the tension as to when they are going to attack really kicks in. The attack that follows is quite memorable with Melanie and children running down the street away from the school, the screeching sounds of the crows filling the soundtrack, but the editing in those shots before the actual attack make up exactly the kind of suspense Hitchock is known for.
For a film about the potential end of the world, The Birds is quite subdued in its overt violence. The bird attacks bring about cuts and scrapes, trickles of blood on people’s faces here and there, but very little in the way of gory imagery. One scene involving Mitch’s mother going to visit a friend and finding him dead, his eyes having been gouged out, is about as graphic as The Birds get. The Birds does have the rare distinction of being one of the only – maybe THE only – Hitchcock film that features a car blowing up. This is inadvertently caused by the birds, and at least one human is caught in the gas station explosion.
Look, the birds don’t wear clothes, okay? So, if bird nudity is sexual in nature, then, yes, The Birds has oodles and oodles of nudity. There’s some talk of Melanie having been pushed into a fountain while naked, but Hitchcock evidently didn’t have it in his budget for flashbacks. Maybe it’ll be in the Gus Van Sant remake.
Gore and nudity, The Birds ain’t got. Scares? It’s got tons. Hitchcock, a master storyteller and builder of suspense, spends much time on his characters and in “showing us the bomb” before allowing it to explode. However, the very thought of birds up and deciding one day they are going to take over this planet, and knowing they could damn well do it if that day every comes, is where much of the unease comes with this film. The bird attacks are shot remarkably. The appearance that these characters are in imminent danger of the swooping and flapping going on about them is palpable. But even in those scene where no attack is occurring, more specifically the final eight minutes of the film, where you know danger is just a wing flap away, those are the moments where The Birds truly holds your nerves in its claws.
Yes, Alfred Hitchcock is a master of suspense, a master of building terror, and The Birds, one of only three or four films in his career that could arguably be considered true horror films, is possibly the scariest. Built on a solid foundation of characters and real-life situations, the film posits an end of the world scenario that is as unique in nature as it is terrifying. The idea that Hitchcock nor screenwriter Evan Hunter ever dare to give a reasoning behind the attacks along with the lack of musical score and the final shot of the film, one that ends with a fade to black rather than the commonplace THE END titles, brings about a sense of absurdity and nihilism to the whole thing.
The Birds did, in fact, have a sequel, the 1994 made-for-Showtime The Birds II: Land’s End. Not having seen it, I’m not sure if it tries to explain the bird attacks, but there is apparently a scene involving vultures versus a helicopter blade. It’s an honorable way to go. Even for a carrion eater.