Many consider The Birds to be a horror masterpiece. But those people probably also talk about Citizen Kane and Rashomon as the best around, and I mean really… has anyone actually seen those movies? We took the plunge on The Birds due in large part to how much of a classic it is. When my mother was a 8 year old this movie played on the telly and despite being expressly told not to watch it she turned on channel 2 and was utterly traumatized for the next decade. I had never seen it, and decided to see whether or not Alfred Hitchcock’s classic was even remotely worth the hype. We’ll dive in with spoilers aplenty after the break.
Reviewed by: Mark
[Quick editors note: Below is not your typical trailer, but is instead a time capsule of Alfred Hitchcock doing what he does. It’s five minutes long, and it is amazing.]
Okay, so I’m gonna level with you. There really isn’t a lot of horror related plot in this movie. This is basically a rom-com that happens to be set against an incredibly bleak backdrop. I’m going to do my best to summarize the actual plot, but ultimately it boils down to “people in a small town are mildly and briefly inconvenienced by some aggressive birds.”
Tippi Hedren plays the affluent merry prankster, Melanie. She encounters Mitch, played by Rod Taylor, a small town lawyer and all time hunk, in a bird shop in San Francisco. They exchange pleasantries and he drops some incredibly un-subtle hints that he’s down to clown. He leaves, and she unabashedly stalks him back to his home in Bodega Bay. Despite having followed this dude all the way up there she somehow still tries to play hard to get, but then he introduces her to his mom and the two basically immediately move in together. Relationships moved faster 50 years ago. Simpler times.
While this is happening the town of Bodega Bay is beset on all sides by a number of strange avian-themed occurrences. Some bad feed (maybe?) causes chickens to behave badly. A seagull slams itself into a door. A small child’s birthday party is disrupted by swarming crows and one girl is lightly scratched. Really terrifying stuff.
Melanie gets wise and decides to start warning the townsfolk, but just as she’s doing so shit gets real. The local schoolhouse is swarmed by more crows, and when Melanie tries to warn the people in a nearby diner, there’s a full on small-town-Jaws-scene where people alternate making fun of her, claiming it’s the end of the world, and spouting off pseudo-scientific ornithological nonsense.
Mitch and Melanie escape the scene and retreat to Mitch’s homestead, wherein Melanie is further mildly assaulted by birds. Mitch basically abducts her after she passes out, throws her in the back of his car, and they drive off into the night. A radio broadcast plays over the scene of the crew driving away indicating that the incident is isolated, but growing into the surrounding areas and that the national guard might be required for containment. This is the way the movie ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.
What the Movie Does Right
I’ll tell you this much.... It scared the hell out of my mom 50 something years ago. Film techniques and general moviegoer tastes have evolved over the years, so viewing this through a modernist lens is a bit disappointing, but Hitchcock knew what he was doing and knew how to make an audience jump. Many of these scenes still feel eerie. A literal murder of crows perching on a jungle gym is still a pretty unique and uneasy shot. There is a farmer who is basically the only real casualty of the movie who has his eyes pecked out and the practical effects in the shot still stand up to this day. Maybe there isn’t a lot of actual horror-movie here, but the parts that qualify for the genre do so with gusto.
The movie is also helped immensely by Hitchock’s ability to build the world of the small town of Bodega Bay. We see Mitch’s estate, the boat docks, the school house, the diner, the local thrift shop and gas station, and a few other minor locales. Frankly, I’m not even really sure this was that much of a feat for the time… he was likely just showing a normal portrayal of small town 1960s America, but I like the charm that he managed to capture in his time capsule.
I also need to add the obligatory “Hitchcock was really good at special effects” note. This movie was one of the pioneering titles of the sodium vapor process and early green screen (it was actually yellow screen at the time). There are shots in this movie that have upwards of 5 different pieces of film edited together at once. We get it Alfie, you’re a genius.
What the Movie Does Wrong
This section is going to be short. The Birds is an unquestionable all-time classic movie, and could be argued as Hitchcock’s best work. That being said, for a classic horror movie, there is almost no horror here, plot wise. This is a movie about a guy and gal courting each other, and it just happens to be set against a backdrop of murderous birds. There isn’t even an explanation as to why the birds are murderous… they just sort of are. There are historical ties to strange events happening that are name-checked in the movie and even a mention of some “bad feed,” but none of these end up becoming actual plot elements. So there you have it, one of the cornerstones of the genre is realistically a barely qualifying member of the genre. Good work, Alfred.
Also, we're not gender scholars here at A-Z Horror, but I would venture so far as to say the sexual politics of this movie haven't exactly aged well. Hey... at least Melanie was able to pilot a boat by herself.
Story: 2 - This pains me a bit, but there’s almost no story here that is actually pertinent to the namesake of the movie.
World-Building / Immersion: 3 - Owing to the fact that this movie is only tenuously about birds, the remaining swaths of it are about 1960s gender politics and romance. Does that sound interesting to you? Because it doesn’t to me. Your mileage may vary, but we were all in agreement that this was a bit of a challenge to get through.
Scare-Factor: 1.5 - It can’t be 1 because it traumatized a member of my family for years, and likely would still illicit a visceral and emotional response. But also, it should be a 1 because apparently people in the 60s were super easy to scare. There is one scene that contains a moderately disturbing image, and that is it.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6 - There’s Hitchcock here, and a substantial amount of historical correction, but also this movie still looks pretty good (all things considered). Apparently, the crew fed all those birds a mixture of barley and whiskey to get the too drunk to fly away, so that’s gotta be worth at least a middling score, right?
Overall: 3 - This movie was a hard watch. Put it on because it’s part of the required reading for the genre, but expect to enjoy it about as much as the required reading you were subjected to in high school.