For years, I have joked that there is no movie so poorly done that it couldn’t be saved by the introduction of an unexplained raptor attack in the third act. Heaven’s Gate? Saved. Ishtar? Saved. Hudson Hawk? Saved. Battlefield Earth? Saved? Catwoman? Saved, but it would be a close call.
Likewise, I have joked that if introducing raptors in a movie were somehow a bad thing, then introducing a fleet of ED-209 robots from Robocop to battle the raptors would set things right. Thankfully, I have never seen a movie that to totally flaunts my velociraptor rule to merit deployment of the ED-209 rule, but I’m confident it is sound.
The reason why I mention these is because I thought of the velociraptor rule when I first saw The Birds and was struck by just how much I begins as one movie and with little warning, shifts into a completely different movie and sucks you in while doing so. Long held as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, this fine thriller about an unexpected attack upon an isolated coastal California town by the birds in the area. It is said that Hitchcock wanted to take a typical kind of romance comedy and suddenly turn it on its head without warning, plunging the audience into as much shock as the characters in the story. It’s the kind of concept where you wish that Universal Studios had done a true bait-and-switch on audiences and marketed this thing as a lighthearted romantic story about a wayward socialite who pursues a love interest to his vacation home on the coast. Smiles! Flirty conversations! Batted eyelashes! Dinner and conversation! Misunderstandings! Expression of…WHAT THE HELL IS THAT OMG? Then just dead people and feathers everywhere. Fade to black.
Nobody had the insane courage to do such a thing when this came out in 1963, but that didn’t mean Hitchcock didn’t do his best to deliver that effect anyway. For those of you who haven’t seen this one, the story is pretty basic. Playful socialite Melanie Taylor has a mildly flirty encounter in a San Francisco pet store with handsome lawyer Mitch Brenner. Mitch plays a minor “mistaken identity” prank on Melanie, and she is ultimately intrigued by his whimsy, and decides to take a long trip along the coast to surprise him at his vacation home in the small getaway town of Bodega Bay. She misses Mitch and goes to leave, but is inexplicably attacked by a seagull. Mitch arrives to tend to her wounds, and has her stay at his house with his mother and younger sister. His former love interest and local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth also befriends Melanie, and the whole thing has the makings of a mild romantic story about Melanie and Mitch and perhaps however Mitch’s mom might get in the way. But then all hell breaks loose and people start reporting vicious, even lethal bird attacks around town. Without warning, the birds have collectively declared war on Bodega Bay, and there is nothing anybody can really do about it. How are you going to fight a flock of a thousand angry starlings?
The situation rapidly deteriorates, as there is no way to fight the birds. There are no emergency plans. No heavily armed police. No scientists with a wonder fix, or even an explanation for what’s going on. There is just the sudden shift from a world where it’s safe to walk around outside to one where it is not. Keep in mind, this is a full five years before Night of the Living Dead would mainstream notions of apocalyptic survival at the movies, so Hitchcock’s handling of this strange and terrifying material was as groundbreaking as it was skillfully executed. In the end, all our heroes can do to succeed is run away, knowing that the now-abandoned Bodega Bay is not the only town suffering this kind of disaster. There are bird attacks all over. What comes next is ultimately up to them, and that’s perhaps the scariest aspect of it all.
There are various film theories to plumb what the birds really represent. I’m content to accept this movie at face value as the introduction of truly horrible problems disrupting a pleasant lifestyle wholly unprepared for what is happening. The heroism here is seen in those who do their best to help others through the mayhem, and that’s where we find this movie’s moment of truth. Just before the town descends in all-out avian assault, Melanie sees the growing bird menace for what it is and decides to go to the schoolhouse and get Annie to bring the children home, where they might be safe. As she waits outside for Annie to collect the kids, she looks to one side, at the playground, devoid of children. She waits a moment longer and looks away, lost in thought. When she looks back, the playground is suddenly covered by an enormous murder of crows, all just sitting there, perched in silence. They arrived without Melanie knowing it. They could have killed her just as easily, and chose not to. Their reason is because they don’t want to kill just one woman. They want to get the kids when they flee the school. And they do precisely that in one of the scariest horror scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s not filled with jump scares or gore, it’s just a bunch of kids running in terror from birds that seriously want to peck their eyes out. You think back to the beginning: This was supposed to be about a socialite and a lawyer falling love, right? Nope. With this scene, Hitchcock tells you what you already know but don’t want to face: This is a movie where even the kids are fair game. And you never saw it coming.