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We are watchers on the wires;
We are tenants of the skies;
Symbols of when man aspires;
Keepers of the flinching eyes;
Witnesses of every creature,
Evil, good, and in between,
Whether as a nimbus reacher
Or a prisoner to preen.
We are victims cursed by weakness,
Kept by cage or mortal mesh;
Though you know us by our meekness,
We will feast upon your flesh.
We are biders of the ages;
We are conquerors in wait.
When our wingéd warring rages,
You will comprehend too late.

(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a riddle poem, one that doesn’t reveal its subject, unless you count the title.)

I had never seen The Birds before and was curious about the film often considered to be Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. While many old suspense/horror films are sapped of their power by the passage of time, this one manages to retain most of its efficacy. Despite its potentially silly concept, the visual effects and Hitchcock’s direction manage to milk the tension and plausibly transform birds into a lethal nightmare, mainly due to their sheer numbers.

As the film begins, it follows the only mildly interesting courtship games of wealthy Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor), and as she goes to improbable lengths to deliver a couple of lovebirds, my VC and I were waiting impatiently for some kind of bird-related havoc to happen. Of course, it does come and progresses gradually, from a single gull to a flock to a shocking discovery at a neighbor’s house (by a younger Jessica Tandy). Once the actual avian carnage begins, the film becomes vastly more entertaining. This transition from romantic comedy to terror was intentional, since Hitchcock wished to prey on his audience’s anticipation as they wondered when the attacks would start. While the gambit works for the most part, I can’t help but feel that Hitchcock was given a pass for a tactic that wouldn’t fly (pardon the pun) with someone of lesser prestige. Many films since have fused comedy and horror, but to shift from an unfunny comedy with no horror to a horror with no comedy would normally be criticized nowadays as being unbalanced or jarring.

Just as 1960’s Psycho established the slasher genre, The Birds actually foreshadowed two other horror sub-genres. Its depiction of nature rising up against humanity would be rehashed with various other animals over the years in lesser imitators (Frogs, Bats, Slugs). Likewise, the climax, in which the Brenners and Melanie barricade themselves within their home and defend against the swarming enemy, prefigured countless other such trapped room invasions throughout the horror genre (Night of the Living Dead, Aliens, The Mist, etc.). When the lights go out during the birds’ attack, I halfway expected someone to say, “They cut the power.” “What do you mean ‘They cut the power?’ How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals!” Unfortunately, The Birds also features the usual victim stupidity common in horror films, like sitting outside for a smoke after birds have attacked or inexplicably stepping into a room that clearly is full of birds and then losing the ability to open a door.

While one could speculate about the presence of caged birds being a possible impetus for the attacks, there is no explanation for the birds’ behavior. Perhaps Hitchcock felt any clarification would detract from the film by adding in some cheesy exposition, like radioactive something-or-other, a favorite device in B-movies. My VC would have preferred something of that sort, as well as a less sudden, ambiguous ending, which offered little closure for the characters. While some of the effects are dated and the beginning could have been improved, The Birds is still a film deserving of its classic reputation, one which succeeded in making even the mere flapping of wings an opportunity for dread.

Best line: (a naysaying ornithologist) “I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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