They seem relatively innocent. We see them every day. They chirp and nestle. Sometimes, they even seem perky. If you live in Portland, they even put them on things and call it art. But apparently, Alfred Hitchcock looked at them and decided they were good fodder for a horror story (well, OK, Daphne DuMaurier who wrote the original novel in 1952 thought they would be good fodder for a horror story, but you get my drift).
The story starts the way most scary stories do, with everything innocent. Melanie Daniels is a wealthy, socialite prankster who gets roped into taking a pair of love birds to the home of dreamy lawyer Mitch Brenner. Mitch lives north of San Francisco in Bodega Bay, which is as quaint and isolated as you would expect it to be. In fact, there’s lots of exposition about how isolated the place is, with only one road in and out, etc. So, Melanie takes the birds there for reasons that are kind of convoluted, and decides to make a weekend of it. She books a room at the home of Annie Hayworth, played by Suzanne Pleshette, who is also the town’s school teacher. Shortly after Melanie, played by Tippi Hedren, arrives, birds in the town start to attack. The attacks grow in intensity and severity, and town residents begin to be killed.
It’s hard to understand why these sweet, gentle creatures would want to hurt us, but Director Alfred Hitchcock addresses some possible causes for their vitriol in his trailer:
At first, the town’s PTB are skeptical, as there is no apparent scientific explanation for the birds’ behavior. They’re cute, right? Gradually, though, the attacks become impossible to ignore and residents start to panic. Some decide to high-tail it out of town. Others decide that staying is their best revenge on those flying beasts.
I would like to take this moment to go on record and state that if swarms of birds started viciously attacking people in my city or neighborhood, I would gladly leave said city or neighborhood. I would not be one of those people staunchly claiming that it would take a lot more than some deadly swarms of birds to get me to leave my home. Similarly, I will never be one of those people you see on CNN stating that they’re going to just sit tight during the hurricane, and that it’ll take a whole lot more than gale-force winds and a wall of water to get them to leave. What I lack in fortitude I make up for in running away. I suspect I’m partially here due to natural selection because my ancestors survived by running away from dangerous things like volcanoes and fires and staying out of the water when megalodons were around and that’s partly why I’m here today to write in this blog, so as a survival mechanism it’s pretty good.
Back to Bodega Bay, the birds are on mega-attack. They swarm pretty much everyone who goes outside and there even manages to be an explosion. Alfred Hitchcock is probably the only person who can work an explosion into a movie about bird attacks and not have it seem contrived. Several more folks die.
After the explosion, Melanie joins Dreamy Mitch, along with his mother, played by Jessica Tandy, and kid sister at their gorgeous ranch home, thinking they can all just hole up and ride it out. It’s during this time that Melanie gets the unwise idea to go upstairs alone, for no apparent reason. Melanie has not read the memo and is unaware that she is in a horror movie, and that the first rule of horror movies is that you never, ever, under any circumstances go upstairs alone. You also never go downstairs alone. Avoiding any level change actually seems to be the key to survival. I think that Melanie’s decision appears to be the earliest example I have seen of this phenomenon, so perhaps it was not added to the rules at this time.
In the end…well, I’ll leave it to you.
The Birds has all the classic trappings of a horror movie, but the culprit is a lot more interesting.
What makes the birds so frightening is Hitchcock is basically exploring what happens when something relatively harmless becomes the opposite. With the scenes of swarming avians it seems Sharknado actually owes more to The Birds than it does to Jaws. Hitchcock also repeatedly swerves over the line of being graphic and then not. One of the first victims in The Birds is shown with gouged-out eyes, but a later victim is shielded from the camera. This makes you wonder…how bad was it. Because they’re just birds. How bad could it be?