Horror in Flight: The Birds



It’s the time of year when fall weather brings a chill, and many film lovers start a marathon of horror movie viewing. There are many films for a viewer to choose from, but what if you’re not a fan of watching scary movies yet still want to experience the thrills of Halloween? Maybe you’re looking for an alternative to the usual selection of blood, shock, and gore. Well, then, it’s time to add Hitchcock’s The Birds to your essential Halloween viewing. Known as the master of cinema suspense, Alfred Hitchcock is perfect for this time of the year.

Before creating The Birds, he was known for making thrillers and mysteries throughout his directing career. In the early 1940s he made Rebecca, a psychological film noir with elements of a gothic ghost story (interestingly, The Birds like Rebecca is based on a Daphne du Maurier story). Also, in the early 1960s Hitchcock made one of his most famous films, Psycho, which is considered one of the earliest predecessors to the popular slasher films. The Birds is about the character of Melanie who goes to the town of Bodega Bay in California to visit a potential love interest, Mitch, whose family lives in the area. After Melanie arrives, flocks of birds begin attacking the townspeople and invading the small town. It’s never explained why the birds suddenly invade nor is there any knowledge as to how to stop them.

With this film, Alfred Hitchcock created a suspenseful horror movie that uses some of the classic fundamentals that appear in the genre. For example, the leads being chased by the villain (in this case the birds), characters trapped in a small-enclosed environment that at first appears to be safe but soon becomes dangerous, and the violence that permeates the storyline.

In classic horror films there’s usually a scene where the characters run away from the villain or creatures. This is the case with one of the famous chase sequences in The Birds when Melanie is waiting outside the town’s school. Before the chase happens, Hitchcock uses editing to create the suspense of the birds slowly preparing for an attack. In this scene, Melanie is sitting on a bench in front of the school playground waiting for school to end. As she sits quietly, Hitchcock cuts to the playground as one by one a flock of crows cover the area. Terrified of what she’s seeing, Melanie along with the school-teacher evacuates the school children only to have the birds chase them as they run away.

Another similarity is when the plot has characters locking themselves in an enclosed sanctuary for safety. Briefly it seems as if they’ll be safe from the terror haunting them, but soon the surroundings become claustrophobic and dangerous as the villain surrounds the area. In a famous scene Melanie is trapped inside a glass telephone booth. From the confines of booth, Melanie watches in horror as the birds attack the citizens of Bodega Bay. For Hitchcock metaphorically, Melanie is now in her own version of a birdcage.

Another scene similar to this concept is near the end. Melanie and Mitch’s family barricade the house from the bird invasion. After locking and boarding up the windows, Melanie and the family wait to see what happens. Soon the birds attack the compound by trying to break through barriers—windows, doors and the fireplace. As the scene progresses the family is successfully kept safe from the invasion but we know it can’t last.

Thirdly, horror films are known for their use of violence and often gore. Hitchcock is no exception to this rule as he shows the ugly side of nature with its violent tendencies and the injuries inflicted on the characters. One intense rather gruesome scene is when a main character played by Jessica Tandy discovers a family friend killed by the birds. The viewer witnesses through Tandy’s eyes how the corpse was brutally mangled by the creatures. Another brutal scene is when the birds attack Melanie. After a swarm of birds try to infiltrate the house, she hears a noise in one of the upstairs bedrooms. When she opens the bedroom door she sees a hole in the ceiling and the flocks of birds that have entered the perimeter. Once the birds see her they assault Melanie horrendously—poking, biting, and scratching as she helplessly tries to defend herself and cries for someone to open the shut door. Even after today’s modern violent movies, this scene is still terrifying to watch as you see how helpless and powerless Melanie is from the birds.

This is just a small example of how Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds is an essential part of the horror movie experience. Just recently the film celebrated its 50th anniversary and was shown in select theaters across the nation. The Birds can, after all these years, still excite a movie audience and is considered Hitchcock’s last great masterpiece. Maybe it’s time to take a chance this Halloween by watching The Birds as part of your horror movie marathon. The next time you see a flock of birds it may not seem so beautiful.

Author’s Note: For another side of the story, HBO has created a film about the intense working relationship between The Birds star Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock entitled The Girl. ■



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