Classic Horror: A Halloween Retrospective on Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”

It’s common for people to watch horror movies around Halloween, and data has shown that October is the most common month for horror films to be released. Given that there are so many options for horror and that Halloween is already here, it can be easy to get lost in deciding what your best options are for psychological self-torture. Fear not; I have a humble recommendation.

In a way, the 1963 cult horror The Birds is a quintessential Hitchcock film. It has a daring male-female protagonist duo, the director’s trademark on-screen cameo, and a narrative that presents its characters’ dangerous situations with an almost gleeful suspense. However, unlike North by Northwest or Vertigo, The Birds is one of Hitchcock’s few attempts at creating a film that conveys horror and shock of an explicitly supernatural nature. In the case of The Birds, that horror is—you guessed it—birds that begin to inexplicably attack and murder the residents of a sleepy seaside town in California.

The Birds is not—and I think Hitchcock would agree with me—a realistic film. The plot begins with a game of one-up between two young people who are so competitive that the woman decides to spend her weekend tracking down the man’s address and delivering the pet lovebirds that he joked about her not being able to get. Hitchcock was very much a fan of the “MacGuffin,” a plot device designed to unfold a film’s narrative through some object or ambition that matters to the characters but not so much to the audience. Similarly to the microfilm in North by Northwest or the necklace in Vertigo, the lovebirds are merely an incentive for Hitchcock’s characters to convene and for the inevitable thrills of the film to present themselves.

A lot of trained birds were used in the creation of Hitchcock’s film, though the atmosphere of the attack scenes is exemplified through special effects that are admittedly dated by modern standards. If you’re willing to look past the superimposed birds and painted sets of Northern California, one of the most engaging facets of the attack scenes is the sound editing used during and between them (if you were wondering, the birds come in waves). There are many scenes between attacks in which the birds are completely still and silent, and the characters get very anxious over not making any noises to anger them. While Hitchcock was most definitely tempted to accent the shots of corpses of attack victims with audial crescendos, the eerie silence in those scenes is an incredible choice for the film’s atmosphere. The way that the film spends a good thirty or so minutes slowly building the bird attacks is also another means of unsettling the viewer for when they finally do commence.

From a purely technical standpoint, The Birds is also an interesting film to watch for the scale of its production and the skill needed to handle so many animals. In fact, the original script of the film features an alternate ending that was deemed too expensive to be worth filming by Universal. This unfilmed scene is something that dedicated Hitchcock fans are more than likely already familiar with; however, the actual ending shot of the film still leaves us on an incredibly tense note that, despite keeping certain questions about the attacking animals unanswered, is strangely aesthetically satisfying and emotionally complete.

The Birds is 119 minutes long. It can be streamed on Hulu, or rented on Amazon video, iTunes, and Google Play.

COVER PHOTO: Horror Movie Network

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