THE BIRDS. By Alfred Hitchcock. The one where the birds attack. Good movie. He was a total bastard to Tippi Hedren but she was good in it. Her first movie. Then she raised Melanie Griffith and a bunch of lions.
Hedren plays Melanie Daniels, and what I definitely didn’t properly appreciate the last time I saw this as a younger person is what a great weirdo Melanie is. During the large portion of the movie where the disaster hasn’t fully made itself known it’s just a funny story about a woman behaving very unreasonably, and not giving a shit, because it amuses her. She’s fun to watch.
It starts in a San Francisco bird store, where Melanie is trying to buy a myna bird. A man named Mitch (Rod Taylor, 101 DALMATIANS, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) starts talking to her like she works there, asking about buying a pair of lovebirds for his 11-year-old sister’s birthday. She plays along, but it turns out he knows she doesn’t work there, he’s a lawyer and recognizes her from a court appearance over some unknown prank she played that “resulted in the smashing of a plate glass window.” For some reason he starts giving her a bunch of shit about it.
“What are you? A policeman?” she asks.
“I simply believe in the law, Miss Daniels, and I’m not too keen on practical jokers.”
The one major flaw of this movie is that there’s never a scene where a hawk or eagle swoops down and bites Mitch’s little dick off. I believe what he’s doing here is what they now call “negging,” a guy acting like an obnoxious, complaining baby as a way of flirting. It works though, because like I said, Melanie is a weirdo. When he leaves the store she checks for his license plate, gets somebody at the newspaper her dad owns to look up the owner, buys the lovebirds he was unable to get and goes to leave them outside of his apartment. But a neighbor (Richard Deacon, PIRANHA) notices and warns her that he’s at his mom’s farm in Bodega Bay for the weekend. So Melanie simply drives sixty miles to Bodega Bay, asks at the post office about where this guy Mitch lives, tries to find out the name of his little sister whose birthday it is so she can write a card, which sends her to the home of school teacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette, HOT STUFF).
Annie is another standout character in this movie. She gives Melanie a cigarette and makes small talk about her visit to Bodega Bay, trying not to be nosy. She asks, “Are you a friend of Mitch’s?”
“No, not really.”
When she finds out Melanie’s from San Francisco she asks, “Is that where you met Mitch?”
“I guess that’s where everyone meets him.”
This is more reason to hate Mitch. It’s all implicit, but later it’s confirmed, that poor Annie moved to Bodega Bay, a town she describes as “a collection of shacks on a hillside,” to be close to Mitch, even though he broke things off with her because his mom, Lydia (Jessica Tandy, COCOON) was jealous of her. The guy leaves a trail.
Here’s Melanie’s greatest act of taking things too far: she doesn’t want to knock on the front door, so instead she rents a small motorboat, floats across the bay (decked in a fur coat), sneaks into the house through the back door, puts the birds and a birthday card inside, and takes off. From the boat she watches and smiles as Mitch goes inside, discovers the present, and comes out confused.
But he spots her, confirms with binoculars that it’s her, gets in a car and drives around the bay to meet her at the dock. Melanie is complicated. I thought she was just fucking with this guy, now it’s pretty clear she wants to do him. But as she comes to the shore to claim her prize she’s foiled by a seagull flying down and wacking her on the head, fucking up her hair, getting her bloody, ruining her moment of glory, changing the subject. What the fuck, bird!?
Melanie spontaneously lies that she came to town to visit her old friend Annie (take that, motherfucker), and pays Annie to let her stay at her place. They actually do become friends and hang out drinking brandy together, but Melanie has dinner at Mitch’s. His sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright 16 years before she was in ALIEN) obviously loves her. His mom judges her because she’s an heiress who’s “always mentioned in the columns,” like the Paris Hilton of her day, maybe, infamous for an incident where she allegedly bathed naked in a fountain in Rome. But she’ll win her over, of course.
I do not have faith in the future of this relationship. I think there’s a very high chance Mitch will pick up some other lady he runs into in San Francisco. And I think a lady who would drive for two hours, do detective work and a stealth boat rental siege on your farm when she barely knows you is a lady who might go a little Left Eye when she gets cheated on. And I support her 100%.
The bird attacks are, of course, the parts I remembered most from THE BIRDS, and the parts that have been most discussed. There are various small incidents and the shit gets out of control when they start attacking kids at Cathy’s birthday party. I have to admit there’s a shot of a little girl on the ground getting pecked that makes me laugh, it’s like something out of MARS ATTACKS!.
Then there’s the part where a swarm of sparrows comes in through the chimney. An amazing scene. I wonder if this was AVATAR-level amazing when it came out, because even now it has such an aura of “how the fuck did they do that?”
When something like that happens, I don’t know what you can do about it, and neither do the cops. I love how the deputy, Malone (Malcolm Atterbury, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH), tries to rationalize it: “Did you have a light burning or something? ‘Cause sometimes birds are attracted by light, you know” and “They got in the room and was just panicked, that’s all” and “Were the kids bothering them or something? ‘Cause sometimes they’ll do that, you know. If you make any kind of disturbance near them, they’ll just come after you.” (Really? They will?)
I don’t think I need to go into detail about how great this movie is at building creepy tension just at the sight of an unusual number of birds who seem to be up to no good. In particular, the famous scene where Melanie is having a cigarette outside of the schoolhouse, her back turned to the playground where we see first four crows, then five, then seven, then her eyes follow one of them flying around and landing and suddenly there are around 200 of them on the monkey bars.
I actually forgot, and didn’t notice, that it doesn’t have a traditional score. I think that adds to the realism, as does the high percentage of the movie shot on location. This seems like (and mostly is) a real place you could visit, and not on a Universal backlot. You get to know this cute little town in a light-hearted tale about a weekend visit and then nature, for some reason, says, “Fuck this.”
I’ve always felt that that “for some reason” was the key. So many movies spend so much time trying to explain why a thing happens. What’s the background, what’s the pseudo-science of it, how does it work, what are the rules. Sometimes that’s fun, but there are times – especially in horror – when it’s way more powerful for there not to be an answer. I don’t want a radioactive meteor, I don’t want an ancient curse, I don’t want to find out the birds were bullied while growing up. The horror is not knowing.
My other complaint besides Mitch not getting his dick ripped off is that Melanie is basically catatonic at the end, being rescued. I like the uncertainty of the ending, I just wish she was able to attend mentally. But before then the movie is dominated by women, with Mitch surrounded by his mom, his weirdly decades younger sister, his ex, and his new lady friend, so I appreciate that.
Like most horror movies THE BIRDS was not admired by all critics at the time. Philip K. Scheuer wrote in the Los Angeles Times, for example, that it was just “shock for shock’s sake” – the early ‘60s version of “torture porn.” I guess you can’t please everybody, at least until some time has passed.
For example, if you were to wait 31 years, until it became 1994, then certainly everybody you met would consider THE BIRDS a classic. And let’s say in that year you were producing a made-for-Showtime sequel to said classic. Would you hire Alan Smithee to direct? I’m thinking you shouldn’t. Every one of that guys’ movies was overshadowed by behind-the-scenes drama. Every one!
Okay. Dumb joke. Alan Smithee is not a guy, he’s a state of mind, and THE BIRDS II: LAND’S END was directed by Rick Rosenthal (RUSSKIES). The disappointing part of the sequel to me is that I always knew Tippi Hedren was in it but did not know it was a cameo playing a different character. It would’ve been exciting to know what became of that weirdo Melanie Daniels, but Hedren is only in a few brief parts as a nice shop owner named Helen. You know what, though? In my opinion that’s Melanie pretending to be a shop owner named Helen as one of her pranks that she does. Still, I’d like to see more of her.
There are no other returning cast members, unless some of the birds were still alive, reprising their roles. Not sure. Other than that the only connection is that about an hour in somebody mentions that something like this happened in a town called Bodega Bay. They say it wasn’t that bad because it only lasted a couple of days and the only dick injury was some lawyer named Mitch something who deserved it.
The nice surprise about the sequel is that, on its own, it’s a pretty decent movie. Held to the standards of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS – no, not up to par. But just for a ‘90s horror movie about birds attacking a small town? Especially a made-for-cable one that the director disowned? Pretty enjoyable! To compare to a similarly themed movie I’ve reviewed recently, I liked this way better than BATS, an actual theatrical release written by a future Academy Award winner.
This one is written by Ken & Jim Wheat, they of EWOKS: THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER, THE FLY II and PITCH BLACK. In other words, heroes. Robert Eisele (DARKMAN II: THE RETURN OF DURANT) is also credited. One advantage their flying animal attack movie has over BATS is that it was made just a little too early to afford a bunch of digital effects. Like the original there are some noticeable composite shots but the vast majority of it is just footage with a whole bunch of trained birds flapping around in people’s faces, cut together with very good animatronic puppets when the birds need to get their talons and beaks dirty. Also it’s shot by Bruce Surtees (THE BEGUILED, DIRTY HARRY, THE OUTFIT, LEADBELLY, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, WHITE DOG, RISKY BUSINESS) so it looks nice.
It’s the story of the Hocken family who, still struggling five years after losing a son, decide to get away by spending a summer on remote Gull Island. The grief part of the story is meant to add dramatic conflicts that seem a little gratuitous to me, but at least they provided work for somebody to do a truck flip in a flashback nightmare sequence.
Ted (Brad Johnson, PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT II, LONE JUSTICE 2, WILD THINGS: DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH) is a biology teacher taking a break and getting nowhere on his thesis, “Interaction in the Biotic Community.” His wife May (Chelsea Field, COMMANDO, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, DEATH SPA, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, THE LAST BOY SCOUT, EXTREME JUSTICE, THE DARK HALF) has taken a job at the island’s tiny newspaper, teaching the editor, Frank (James Naughton, CAT’S EYE) how to use a new computer system. Their two young daughters, Jill (Stephanie Milford) and Joanna (Megan Gallacher, NAT TURNER: A TROUBLESOME PROPERTY) are annoyed to be here.
They stay in a cute little house along the water that’s really dilapidated as if we’re returning to an iconic location years later, but of course this house and town are not from the first movie at all.
I enjoy the silliness of youth-oriented horror, but an underrated part of ‘90s horror was how normal it was just to do stories about grown ups. Of course these particular ones aren’t up to anything as interesting as Melanie was in the first one, but there’s some pretty good quirky business as they’re meeting the other people in town. For example, the first time Ted gets randomly pecked by a bird he tries to see the town doctor, Doc Rayburn (Richard K. Olsen, RADIOLAND MURDERS, THE NIGHT FLIER) and is told to check for him at his other office, because he’s also the mayor. That’s amusing enough, but when we cut to “his other office” it’s the Tides Tavern, “Home of the Complete Angler.” Sure enough he has a booth there with a plaque calling it his office, and he conducts business while playing pool with a smirking henchman (lieutenant governor?). He seems even less doctorly than mayorly. When he looks at the little cut on Ted’s head he grunts, “That’s pretty nasty. What the hell did you do to yourself?”
Meanwhile at work May is dealing with what seems to me like sexual harassment but she takes it as her questioning her marriage. Ted goes with her when she first shows up, recognizes some photos on the wall and realizes Frank was a famous photojournalist before retiring to Gull Island. While Ted is complimenting him he’s already leaning weirdly close to May and flirting with her right in front of him. On the first shift he’s immediately making comments about May being beautiful, “I hope your husband appreciates you” type of shit, and bringing her on a “lunch date.” When May tells him about the death of their son and how hard a time Ted has had with it it seems for about .075 seconds like Frank will back off, then he suggests maybe Ted and May both need “a different direction.”
A highlight of the movie is when the girls are playing on the beach and find a dead gull. It’s a very realistic looking prop that Jill picks up to examine, as Joanna sensibly tells her, “Don’t touch it!” Meanwhile, behind them, a dead human with his eyes pecked out floats ashore.
I like the little subplot that after discovering the corpse the girls are frightened by an old lighthouse keeper named Karl (Jan Rubes, D2: THE MIGHTY DUCKS) who they think is weird so they assume is the one who killed the guy. Later Karl brings over a fish and tells them pirate stories and becomes their best friend besides their dog Scout.
Another funny part is when they’re eating dinner and Scout carries a small bird in under the table. They pull the bird out and he’s okay but for some reason Ted’s idea is not to let it go, but to put it in a box. The girls name him Egbert but are sad when he flies away. The first “Holy fuck, this is serious” scene happens after they find Egbert at the window. They let him in and put him in his birdcage and meanwhile like a hundred other birds fly in the window. The next day the girls theorize that those birds were “mad at Egbert and knew he was friends with us.” Poor things don’t know their buddy set them up to be pecked to death.
Scout is a way better friend than motherfuckin Egbert. Admittedly his barking at birds interrupts potential porch sex for the parents. But that’s overshadowed by the part where he leaps up, catches a hawk swooping at the girls, and chews the fucker to bits while being pecked to death by crows. The most heroic character in the movie and the only one to receive a proper funeral.
I’m not saying it’s better than THE BIRDS but I appreciate the extra splatter and mayhem added to the bird attack sequences. I like the sound of the birds crashing through wire window covers. I like that they chew up the phone lines. Clever girl. I like that they peck holes through the walls (and later a boat) causing light to shine through like the bullet holds in NEAR DARK.
When the birds swarm the (I guess) downtown area at the climax it seems to remind Frank of the old days, he gets out the camera and starts shooting, and a crow swoops down, claws at his face and knocks him on his ass. Funny shit. I was really appreciating that Naughton plays this sleazeball character just as a charming handsome dude, not as a sleazeball, which I think makes it even more enjoyable to see that happen to him. But soon he’ll be steadfastly helping the Hockens (including Ted) get to safety, so I realized that was because he’s really not supposed to be such a sleazeball. That’s okay. It works anyway.
The Mayor does go out like a scumbag. First he declares “All those birds need is a little attitude adjustment,” cocking a rifle. He and his right hand man go out and shoot like 2 or 3 of the 10,000 birds. (One explodes pretty good.) Then His Honor gets scared and tries to flee on a small boat, lands in the water after a gasoline mishap, somebody fires a flaregun setting a bird on fire and it falls in the water lighting the gas and the mayor on fire. That’s the most beautiful part, but you also have to appreciate that the chain reaction continues and a bunch of buildings explode into enormous fireballs.
The ending is awkward – it just feels to me like the rhythm is off, it feels too abrupt. But it’s not a bad idea. The birds are headed for the mainland, suggesting (I think) that this could be only the beginning of an aviacalypse.
I’ve been meaning to do this double feature for years, and amazingly last year Vinegar Syndrome released the sequel on a nice blu-ray. Rosenthal does not appear on the extras, but those who do say the reason he took his name off it is that he was trying to make something more true to Hitchcock’s style but the producers wanted a modern horror movie. Apparently the opening kill of a marine biologist on a boat was added without him. I didn’t notice that it’s a different actor who looks nothing like the body that washes up on the beach, intended to be him. I guess I succumbed to the magic of (made for pay cable) cinema.
It’s interesting that this happened to Rosenthal, since his claim to fame is directing another sequel to an untouchable horror classic, HALLOWEEN II. That was a bit less of an uphill battle because it was only a handful of years after the first movie, and written, produced and scored by the original director John Carpenter. But it was the same result in that Rosenthal tried to continue the style of the original but the producer (Carpenter) wanted a more up-to-date horror movie and did reshoots and a re-edit to make it gorier. Decades later Rosenthal got his revenge by making by far the worst HALLOWEEN movie, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, and Carpenter got his revenge on the revenge by probly not bothering to watch that movie or think about it at all.
THE BIRDS II: LAND’S END is no THE BIRDS I: ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE BIRDS, and it’s also no PSYCHO II. But I enjoyed it.