Monday, April 26, 2010

The Birds, The

If you were to ask the average Californian what their greatest fear is, the first answer you'd get is "getting an uneven tan". The second and more thoughtful answer would have to be "getting attacked by swarms of crows and seagulls that developed murderous instincts". This birdaphobia was well explored in last night's film, Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic, "The Birds".

First off, you're probably aware that a group of crows is called a "murder". What you may not be aware of is that a group of sparrows is called a "suicide". Freaky, eh? The film was pretty terrific--no, not in terms of special effects and some of the performances were weak, but the ole master of suspense managed to carefully build up the sense of doom and horror brought on by a flock of seagulls (and this is unrelated to the doom and horror one gets when listening to '80s band "A Flock of Seagulls"). It was almost as though Hitchcock decided to challenge himself, by picking something people aren't normally scared of--everyday birds--and making them the subject of pure terror. Scorpions, snakes, gators, tax assessors--these would all be too easy. But birds, man! Yep, birds.

Also, the flirtations between the two main characters (played by Rod Taylor and Melanie Griffith's mom, Tippi Hendren) never fully developed in the unrealistic way one has come to expect in horror films. They're both a bit unlikeable, but ultimately team together against the avian overlords.

And the tension--Hitchcock knew how to build it. Perhaps the best scene was the one where Tippi was sitting at a bench outside the school waiting for the class to be dismissed, listening to the kids' inane singing, and you see behind her a murder of crows start to gather on the jungle gym. The ensuing bird attack wasn't a "gotcha" moment so much as a careful buildup of suspense.

But to my mind one of the best things about the film--besides its bleak ending, which makes for superior horror--was they never tried to explain what caused the birds to attack the people. Somehow, horror films fall into that trap all the time--say, the bees attack us because of pesticides, or atomic tests cause the monster to come from the deep sea. But having the characters (and the viewers) simply have no idea what caused it gives us an added sense of doom. Sometimes things are just more horrible when we don't know why, because then we can't figure out how to stop it.

And yes, I'm now going to stock up on shotguns and birdshot. Just in case.

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