Welcome to Retro Time. In this blog, I’ll be covering topics related to film and television from past decades. These won’t be reviews, but rather a selection of memories, thoughts, and ideas designed to spark a little nostalgia and maybe inspire a conversation or two. Spoilers will likely come up, so please keep that in mind. Thanks for stopping by, and if you have any thoughts or ideas, feel free to chime in. I’d love to get your feedback. Now, let’s get ready to take a look back…
It’s summer, and there’s just something about this time of year that gets me in the mood to watch an old school monster movie. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I have fond memories of staying up to the wee hours during summer break, watching old creature features on late night TV when I was a kid. I’m talking about stuff they made during the early Cold War era where the fear of nuclear bomb testing had everyone believing that a spider could grow to be as large as a house or a colony of ants could mutate into an army of rubber-skinned, horse-sized terrors.
But when I recently went to throw on one of these horrifying little gems of yesteryear, my mind settled on an interesting choice.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Let me start by saying that I’m a huge fan of Hitchcock’s work as well. But he was mostly known for making psychological thrillers. Genre entertainment – especially anything resembling the campy glory of the 50’s and 60’s monster movie heyday – was not really his forte. But The Birds, I feel, is an exception, Hitch’s most ambitious stab (no pun intended for all you Psycho fans out there) at the realm of the supernatural.
It’s hard to place what genre it’s even in. Horror? Maybe. It definitely has its bloody moments – dude with his eyes pecked out comes to mind. Sci-fi? Probably not, unless you consider that it involves the science of ornithology, the branch of zoology that deals with bird study. But I know I’m stretching like Reed Richards at that one, so let’s move on.
Which genre is it, then? Personally, I like to think of it as a straight up monster movie. Here’s why.
It’s a staple of monster films from this era to take a creature typically benign and harmless to us and turn it into our worst nightmare. Take 1958’s The Blob for instance. On the surface, it’s nothing but a worthless wad of Flarp. But wait a minute. This Flarp will latch onto you and suck the flesh right off your bones. Or how’s about the 1958 version of The Fly? I feel a bad Yakov Smirnoff joke coming on. “In Soviet-fearing 1950’s, fly swats you.”
The Birds falls nicely into this camp. Released in 1963, it brings us Hitchcock’s take on the whole friendly-creature-turned-terrifying-threat theme. The premise is simple. In a small town on the California coast, the local bird population – driven by some unknown force – begins to attack the town’s population. Hitchcock paces this brilliantly, a strange occurrence here, a rogue bird strike there, all while focusing on strong characters and their relationships.
If this were made today, the first scene would probably be jam packed with a gaggle of CGI birds attacking a beach-full of crooning hipsters in another here-we-go-again, over-bloated, over-stuffed cacophony of chaos that we’ve seen a hundred times before. But Hitchcock gives us something better than that. Instead, he starts off portraying the birds as the harmless, friendly creatures we’ve always known them to be. Slowly, as the film builds, our perception of this begins to change. Subtle hints and freak occurrences start to leave us with the impression that something isn’t right here. Slowly it builds and builds until finally all hell breaks loose in all its school children attacking, phone booth bombing glory.
They didn’t call Hitchcock the Master of Suspense for nothing.
And it’s this eye toward suspense that really puts it firmly in the monster movie category for me. By showing the birds to be harmless creatures at first – only to turn that around on its ear later on – he gives us a glimpse into something truly frightening. Traditional monsters like werewolves and vampires are supposed to be fierce and menacing. But when you take a creature that is supposed to be kind and gentle and switch out their nature for something fierce and menacing, that’s when you know that you have a real monster on your hands.
And that’s what I feel Hitchcock gave us in this 1963 classic, one of the best monster movies that era ever produced.
So if you find yourself in the mood to watch an old school creature feature from days gone by, why not join me in a viewing of this unconventional Hitchcock gem?
But before you do, you might want to make sure all your windows are shut and your chimney flue is closed.
Just in case.