Known as the master of suspense and often credited with inventing the thriller genre, there’s not a genre filmmaker today that doesn’t cite Alfred Hitchcock as an inspiration. We look to his films like Rear Window for inspiring countless paranoid thrillers, and Psycho with inadvertently inspiring slashers. However, another film of his did something similar with the theme of humans vs. nature.
1963’s The Birds took an incredibly simple premise and made it absolutely terrifying. Not only was it a masterclass in the deadly animal subgenre, but it simultaneously changed said genre forever. And in its wake is a slew of other films from varying subgenres that all seem to borrow from it.
So in honor of the 60th anniversary of The Birds, we wanted to take a look back at it, understand why it made such an impact, and how it managed to change cinema forever.
Romantic Comedy Turned Horror
One of the most interesting aspects of (most) horror films is that they always start out as a completely different genre. Likewise, The Birds begins as a charming romantic comedy with Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor) meeting at the pet shop. And while they were adversarial on the service, they were clearly flirting underneath, so much so that Melanie drives two hours away just to deliver him lovebirds for his little sister’s birthday.
The film really took its time to establish its characters, setting, and conflicts, so much so that you already had the makings of an interesting movie before the horror started. That’s an art form that horror movies will continue with today, but many feel the need to jump into the horror right away. And while that does work sometimes depending on the story, it often works better when the horrific elements seem to take the audience by surprise, just as much as the characters.
Cutting Edge (For the Time)
The film was very much of its time in the sense that we have large projections in the background for scenes when Melanie is driving or out on the water. It was the greenscreen of its day, and whenever you see it, it does date the movie, but often in a charming manner. Where The Birds stands apart was that it was one of the first movies in Hollywood to use these backgrounds in a new and different way.
One scene in particular features countless birds attacking a group of schoolchildren. At the time, most background projections were of still images or a rotating background like in a driving scene. This required a mixture of birds in the background and prop/real birds in the scene itself blended. This was a relatively new way to use these backgrounds and would pave the way for the seemingly infinite amount of CGI backgrounds and green screens we see today.
Another impressive technical feat is one such scene where the birds fly into a house through the fireplace and attack Melanie, Mitch, and Mitch’s family inside. The birds obviously weren’t really there, so they composited film images of them onto the film image of the actors in the house, seamlessly blending the two in a way that honestly looks better than some CGI today
No Rhyme or Reason
Infamously, The Birds never gave a motivation or reason behind the titular winged creatures’ coordinated attack. We know that different species were flocking together (much to the denial of Ethel Griffies’ Mrs. Bundy), and that at the end, the birds seem to allow the humans to live, so long as they leave.
We can surmise that this may have been territorial in nature, but the film also never divulges whether this event was limited to Bodega Bay, or if birds all around the world were rising up to take the planet from humans. Sure, we see the Bodega Bay battalion let the humans go, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t run into hostile birds elsewhere. And it’s because the film leaves this up to interpretation that we the audience can have all these different theories.
One of the byproducts of the twist ending being so popular in horror/thriller movies (which Hitchcock himself played a role in) is the need to explain everything, often in clunky, on the nose ways. As highly revered as Psycho is, its final few minutes where the psychiatrist lays out Norman Bates’ diagnosis as if he’s teaching a class on it really takes you out of the moment.
But with The Birds, there’s no such explanation. No themes or agendas the film is trying to push, no over the top reveal of some nefarious villains’ dastardly plan. It’s just the wrath of nature against unsuspecting humans who are woefully unprepared. Even as Mrs. Bundy lists all of her bird statistics; she decries that humans wouldn’t stand a chance if the estimated 100 billion birds in the world turned on us.
Inspiring a Generation
The Birds was certainly not the first deadly animal horror film to be made, but it was the first of its kind. Gone are the cheesy sci-fi monster movies of the 50s where some animal gets blasted with radiation and turns into a giant monster. This film feels far more “modern” in its tone and in its overall scares.
Without even realizing what it was doing, the film perfected the trope of characters barricading themselves in a house while some exterior threat tried to get in. M. Night Shyamalan (himself a huge Hitchcock fan), admitted that the entire final sequence of Signs was very much inspired by The Birds and it showed.
Thus, countless filmmakers have borrowed these elements and themes for their own projects. The parallels and inspirations between Psycho and Halloween are clear (especially with the character name of Sam Loomis), but the entire concept of never knowing why the birds did what they did kind of feels in line with John Carpenter never wanting to explain why Michael Myers kills. In both cases, Carpenter and Hitchcock want the audience to fill in those gaps with our own fears and anxieties.
It also really helped set the tone for the looming dread that many disaster movies would have, particularly in the 1970’s when that subgenre really took off with films like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. In a lot of ways, the diner scene in which they discuss what is happening is far scarier than the birds actually attacking because again, it’s letting the audience’s collective imagination run wild with fear.
We also have to give credit where credit is due. It’s easy to make a massive great white shark scary since it can easily devour a human. But given how small birds are, using their numbers to make them deadly is a great example of taking an animal that doesn’t seem inherently scary and making them terrifying!
What do you think of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds? What are some of your other favorite Hitchcock movies? Let us know in the comments!
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