Watch out for those birds, 3.5 readers
You’ve probably seen bits and pieces of this movie over the years, but in case you haven’t, spoiler alert. I’m working my way through Peacock’s Hitchcock collection (say that five times fast) and you should too, so if you don’t want the chills and thrills ruined, look away, go watch, then come back.)
On the surface, this movie sounds like crap. Somehow, it isn’t. Frankly, as I watch it, I see how it builds practically every horror movie trope that modern horror takes for granted today. Hitchcock is to the American horror film what Poe was to the American horror story (as in scary lit, not the TV series.)
A young, wayward and wealthy socialite party girl, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren) meets a handsome and successful lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) by chance in a pet shop in San Francisco. Hoping a romance might blossom, Melanie arranges for the pet shop to obtain and sell her the “love birds” that Mitch was looking for but unable to find as a present for his young sister. Melanie then drives up the coast to the small, seaside town of Bodega Bay to deliver the feathered friends.
Once in Bodega Bay, a romance indeed blooms between Melanie and Mitch, but alas, this gets fucked up when birds start freaking the hell out, first singling out Melanie as their victim, then turning their beaks on the populace.
The effects, by today’s standards, are silly, though I imagine in 1963, they were some truly scary shit. I actually found the scenes without effects to be scarier. There’s one scene in particular where Melanie goes to Mitch’s sister, Cathy’s school to check on the girl. As Melanie sits on a bench and has a smoke, waiting for class to let out, she slowly realizes that the birds are slowly but surely landing on and hanging out on the playground – perching on the monkey bars, the swing set. These birds aren’t just resting their feet, they’re casing the joint, ready to strike.
In another scene, the birds manage to cause a gas pump to leak across the street, when an unsuspecting man is lighting a smoke and kaboom! The street erupts in a line of fire, cutting off the townsfolk from fleeing their vile beaks. Yup. The birds are intelligent. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
If you came for explanations, there are none to be found here. At times, there are possible hints. It all starts when Melanie arrives, but if its because of her or a coincidence, we never know for sure, and if it is because of her, we never learn why the birds hate her so much.
I briefly flirted with the idea that somehow, Mitch’s mother, Lydia (played by a middle-aged Jessica Tandy, the youngest I’ve ever seen her) controls the birds with her mind. She is one of those smothering mothers who detests the idea of their son getting married and spending his time with anyone else (combine this with Psycho and I wonder if Hitchcock had mother issues) but its not that either.
We never know why the birds go postal, though I imagine if there is ever a modern remake, it will be due to climate change. The birds will peck the shit out of humans because they are tire of the sky they fly in being polluted. Who can blame them, really?
What you will see in this movie is, to the best of my knowledge, a lot of firsts. A better movie buff might disagree, but to the best of my knowledge, this is the film that has the first scene where the heroes have boarded up their house and the baddies are trying to break in (you wouldn’t have all those movies with zombie fists punching through boarded up windows if Hitchcock didn’t have all those beaks pecking through the walls first), the first movie where a character walks upstairs despite common sense telling you that in a house siege, you want to be as close to an exit as possible (sigh, some dude in a 1963 movie theater was probably the first audience member to yell, ‘No! Don’t go up there, bitch!”) and overall, its the first horror film, or at least the first I can recall, where something bad is happening, the explanation is outlandish, the heroes try to warn but are laughed off as idiots until sure enough, the rest of the masses have come to find out that outlandish explanation is true.
Hitchcock took a lot of risks here. Killer birds is a stupid idea today, so it must have been considered absurdly stupid in 1960s. But he took the chance and it paid off. Ironically, this isn’t just one of the earliest and best standard setting horror movies, it is also, IMO the forerunner of movies like Sharknado – i.e. if you run with a ridiculous premise long enough the audience will eventually suspend disbelief long enough to see where you’re going with it.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. And if you want to be cheered up, you’ll be happy to know that Tippi Hedren is still alive! Yes, as I watched, I was sad, thinking, boy, everyone in this movie has probably croaked but sure enough, Tippi, at 90, lives. The birds remain no match for her.