Halloween is a month-long celebration that spans decades of movie history, from Southern Gothic to psychothriller. The film beat embraces this history, dedicating each week of October to a different time period of horror. This series celebrates every nightmare you had when you were ten, every creak in the floorboards of an old house, every piece of candy stuck to the inside of your pillowcase and everything that keeps you up at night. For this week, we’re sticking to the beginnings of modern horror: Hitchcock’s reign of the ’60s.
— Mary Elizabeth Johnson, For The Daily
When I was seven or eight, I went trick-or-treating dressed as a bird. A golden eagle, to be exact. My costume had broad wings, a tawny, beak-bearing hood, a feathered tunic — the whole shebang. Many a caw and shrill shriek were uttered that night as I glided from house to house sinking my papier-mâché talons into wads of Swedish Fish and gummy worms.
I hadn’t asked to be a bird that Halloween. I believe I wanted to be a chimera — a three-headed beast from Greek myths that combines the likenesses of a lion, goat and serpent. The year before I had been a griffin — another chimeric creature smooshing together the features of a lion and an eagle. My sweet mother, not really knowing what a griffin or a chimera was but armed with Google Images and a sewing machine, obliged my desires by hand-crafting my costumes. I guess chimera was a head too far, because that year she scissored the leonine bits off my griffin costume of yesteryear to produce an eagle and that was that.
Thankfully, in addition to being a mythology kid, I was a bit of a bird nerd, so this alternative went off without a hitch.
A baker’s dozen years later and I think my sweet mother may have been onto something, as has been made clear to me by Hitchcock’s 1963 “Psycho” follow-up “The Birds.” Yes, another Hitchcock in our Halloween series, but this time it’s a technicolor terror — one of the OG “daylight horrors,” a genre that reached horrific heights with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Wickerman” in the ’70s, went dormant for a few decades of drafty, dark houses and woebegone woods, only to be reinjected into the popular consciousness again with last year’s “Midsommar.”
“The Birds” takes place in the isolated seaside town of Bodega Bay, California. In Tippi Hedren’s (“The Ghost in the Whale”) debut, Melanie Daniels, a devil-may-care socialite with way too much time on her hands, arrives in Bodega Bay to deliver lovebird parrots to her own prospective lovebird Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor, “Inglourious Basterds”) as an elaborate practical joke. In fact, for the first half of this movie that’s really all it is — a ’60s romcom with an inordinate fondness for birds.
“The Birds” doesn’t feature any murderous dolls or body-hopping aliens or undead shades that just really love to hang around Victorian homes and imitate the sounds of doors closing for some reason. Rather, when shit hits the fan — and it does — it’s a bunch of birds. Not birds from hell or birds made giant or birds under the sway of some mysterious birdman — just a bunch of seagulls and sparrows.
“Jaws” would do something similar almost two decades later, as after all, the shark in “Jaws” is nothing more than a shark with a particular palette, but at least that shark was a shark. The birds are just birds.
I need not waste time explaining Hitchcock’s expertise in crafting a tense, thrilling scene. He’s got a whole adjective named after him that gets thrown around at any modern thriller some filmbro with a blog thinks is neat. But damn it if “The Birds” isn’t Hitchcockian. As alluded to earlier, the film largely takes place in broad daylight. The film is not scary — it’s hard for old movies to be scary; even “The Exorcist,” which reportedly induced a rash of vomiting when seen in theaters back in the ’70s, while still excellent, is hardly puke-worthy by today’s standards. So, while “The Birds” isn’t the movie to get your scream out during on Halloween night, the careful use of sound (the pitter patter of wings takes on a whole new color), score and blocking make its tension palpable even 60 years later.
The film demonstrates that even the oh so mundane can be oh so horrific. In a special teaser trailer, Alfred Hitchcock himself cheekily expounds on the “conspicuous part” humanity has played in our feathered friends’ “noble history”: “Thousands of years ago, man was satisfied merely to steal an egg from a nest and use it for food. Now he has perfected this process by imprisoning each hen in a cage, and by scientifically manipulating the lights so that she doesn’t fall into the rut of the old 24-hour day. Thus, he can induce the bird to reach fantastic heights of egg production.”
After the first bird attacks, a skeptical armchair ornithologist explains that there are over five billion birds in the United States, and over 100 billion across the five continents of the world (not sure what happened to the other two).
We can all do the math at this point. Birds are scary.
Where does this leave “The Birds”? A horror-thriller eco-fable? Maybe so. The opening credits are accompanied by a cacophony of bird noises that begin to uncannily resemble the sound of gunfire and general warfare. Does this suggest the film is actually an allegory for wartime uneasiness? Likewise, maybe so. This was only a few years after the second Red Scare, and the ubiquity and utter banality of birds marries well with the notion of a ubiquitous and undercover cadre of communists. The gender roles also get a bit wonky — it has a robust female cast that loses some of its glamor as you realize each woman has an unhealthy obsession with our strapping Mitch. Does this make “The Birds” an anti-feminist screed against the independent, counter-cultural woman? Disappointingly, maybe so. An argument can be made that the film is self-reflective, but Hitchcock doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation in this respect.
All that being said, Halloween 2020 is going to be a whole other kind of scary. Trick-or-treating and costume parties, with either handmade bird costumes or more traditional fare, is ill-advised. Snuggling at home with a heap of candy is the move, and with spooky season taking over all four seasons this year, the tense but toothless old-timey scary “The Birds” might be just the right way to keep the spirit alive on a Halloween that has already got the scary in spades.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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