Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Birds

3.5/4

Starring: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright

Rated PG-13 (probably for Terror/Violence)

Birds.

Not exactly a particularly frightening creature.  Lions ("The Ghost and the Darkness"), I get.  Snakes ("Anaconda"), definitely.  But birds?  Not really.  I mean, I did have one or two creepy experiences (a blackbird would attack little kids who walked by its tree at summer camp and during college a particularly aggressive goose would go into an aggressive stance as I walked by), but that's it.  Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to find a way to make seagulls and pigeons scary.

Melanie Daniels (Hedren) is waiting to purchase a bird for her tightly wound aunt (she plans to teach it some "four letter words" before her aunt returns from Europe).  While there, she runs into a lawyer named Mitch Brenner (Taylor) who remembers her from some newspaper headlines.  There's a spark, and she goes to his weekend home in Bodega Bay to bring his sister the lovebirds he's looking for.  The two hit it off, despite the reservations of his brittle mother Lydia (Tandy).  Then strange things start happening.  A seagull takes a dive at her.  Another crashes headfirst into the door of the home she's staying at for the weekend.  When a swarm of birds invades Mitch's living room, they know that something really strange is going on.  And it's just getting started...

More than a premise or special effects, a horror movie needs characters we can relate to.  No one understood that better than Alfred Hitchcock.  Hitch was never one to be impatient.  He started his movies slowly and allowed them to build.  More importantly, he took that time to establish his characters and allow the audience to get involved in their situation.  Scares and suspense are important yes, but they're not going to work if they don't have a good foundation.  Take a look at the most terrifying horror film in recent years, "Sinister."  Bughuul was a horrifying creature, to be sure; evil enough to frighten someone just by looking at him.  But he was a minor detail.  The bulk of the movie was watching Ethan Hawke try to solve a mystery.  It was morbidly fascinating and completely absorbing.  By the time Bughuul showed up, we were already hooked.

"The Birds" works in the same way.  Watching Melanie and Mitch trade barbs and one-liners is immensely entertaining and the two have a lot of chemistry together.  The supporting characters of Lydia, who is unwilling to cut the apron strings, and Annie (Pleshette), the schoolteacher who still holds a torch for Mitch, are also compelling.  These characters are well-drawn and interesting enough to carry a movie all on their own.  That Hitchcock inserts them into a horror movie makes it that much more intense.

Admittedly, the idea of birds attacking a town is absurd.  But so is an escaped psychopath putting on a mask and stabbing teenagers to death ("Halloween").  Or an alien picking off the crew members of a spaceship one by one ("Alien").  It's all in the execution, and that's where Hitch is a master.  True, he's working with a well-written screenplay and a talented cast of actors, but even with that, a hack filmmaker could have blown it.  Not Hitch.  No one does suspense like him, and beneath the scares and special effects (some of which are admittedly rather cheesy), you get the sense that he's wearing a big grin on his face.  That sense of glee is there, even if you're too scared to notice it.

"The Birds" isn't any kind of a masterpiece.  You're not going to miss out on a life-altering experience if you don't see it.  It's not "The Godfather" or "Boyhood."  It's not an "essential" film.  It is, however, extremely entertaining.  This is the kind of movie that you pop in with your friends on a warm summer night at a sleepover.  You got your popcorn and your soda, and you lie in your sleeping bags as you scream at the scares and giggle with each other once they're over.  The climax is on the weaki side because Hitch doesn't push it far enough, but other than that this movie is a flat-out winner.

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