Sinister Summer: “The Birds” Retrospective Review

“You’ll never look at birds the same way again” (Jurassic Park). Although Dr. Grant was referring to velociraptors, you can say the very same thing about Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock directed more than fifty feature length films, only two of which are horror (Psycho and The Birds). However, he is widely credited, and rightly so, as the director who ushered in the modern horror film, with Psycho being regarded as the first modern horror film. On the heels of the success of Psycho, a film that revolutionized so much about the movie-going experience from movie start times to “not spoiling the ending” (now where have we recently heard that???), Hitch set out to deliver another horror film at the height of his powers. But what would it be about? He turned to past collaborator Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Hitch’s first American film. Her best-selling novella The Birds had previously been adapted for radio and stage (I’ve actually seen the stage adaptation, and incidentally I prefer the film), but Hitch decided to adapt it (loosely I might add) for the small screen. That’s right, small screen. He originally intended The Birds to be adapted for his wildly popular and successful series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But like Jordan Peele did with Us, which I am convinced started out as an idea for his Twilight Zone series, Hitch decided to take the idea from TV to the cinema! So with the decision to adapt du Maurier’s novella into a cinematic experience, Hitch made history. Not only is it one of the most famous films in cinematic history, it sowed the birdseed for all the “when nature attacks” movies to follow including Jaws and Jurassic Park. This film was also influential in John Carpenter’s The Fog and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. With the question of why did the birds attack never being answered, it leaves the events of this movie lingering in our minds as a possible reality.

To hear a conversation with me on the CineMust podcast chatting about the must-see status of The Birds and Jaws, click HERE.

When wealthy well-known socialite Melanie Daniels (Hedron) finds herself to be the brunt of a practical joke played by lawyer Mitch Brenner (Taylor) at a bird shop while searching for a gift, she decides to return the favor by buying a couple of birds and dropping them off at his apartment. Upon finding that he spends the weekends with his younger sister and mother (Jessica Tandy) north of San Francisco in the small community of Bodega Bay, she drives to the remote town in order to deliver the birds. Soon after her unannounced arrival, the birds of the town begin to act incredibly strangely. Following a seagull attacking Melanie, and Mitch’s mother discovering her neighbor dead from an apparent bird attack, the town realizes that the birds are a real threat. Eventually birds, in the thousands are attacking anyone without reason or explanation as to why this is happening. Trapped in the Brenner household, survival becomes the number one priority for not only our central characters but everyone in the town.

At the heart of The Birds is relationships. Relationships ranging from romantic to familial and then between an outsider and the natives of a close knit town. Paranoia is a common theme in this film as well. The characters and their relationships between one another are so incredibly strong and well–developed that you can ostensibly remove the birds from the equation and the movie still works. Now, it doesn’t work as a horror film, but it works as a drama. The strength of this screenplay, written by Evan Hunter, lies in the complex characters and simple plot. Although the plot is largely changed from du Maurier’s novella, the setting, character dynamics, and the idea of the home invasion are extrapolated from the source material. Outside of the terrifying element of the attacking birds, the film’s subplot is about an outsider invading a close knit community and a de facto love quadrangle between Mitch, his mother, his sister, and his ex. Essentially, Melanie upsets the normal order of the town much in the same way that the birds upset the pecking order of humans vs nature. The screenplay also delivers some outstanding tonal shifts that are seamlessly woven together. Way before the first bird attacks, The Birds begins as a screwball comedy right out of the 1930s, then changes into a soap opera, then suspense, followed by horror. Lastly, the movie takes one final tonal shift from horror to apocalyptic, complete with dead bodies, foreboding birds, and a lack of resolution. This movie has legitimately inspired the real fear of birds (ornithophobia) in how the scenes were shot and the lingering possibility that this could happen in your own town.

There is a brilliant lack of explanation of why the birds are attacking not is there any real means of escape for the townsfolk of Bodega Bay, all while chaos reigns supreme in this otherwise innocent seaside landscape. Yet, this cinematic work is a permanent resident of our sociological zeitgeist. Even those who have not seen the film are aware of its existence. And it has gone from screen to live experience at the former Universal Studios Florida attraction Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies. The reason why we don’t focus on the lack of an explanation for the birds bizarre and violent behavior is for the same reason that we don’t ask why Bruce (Jaws) is attacking people. We accept it because the film is more concerned with its theme than points of origin expositional dumps. We don’t care about why the birds are doing what they are doing–that’s part of the horror. It’s the same reason why it’s important that we don’t know too much about Michael Myers; if we knew too much about him, why he ticks, then he would cease to be the boogeyman. These birds would cease to be terrifying if there was some sort of natural or supernatural explanation. The unknown is frightening. There have been many hypotheses over the years as to what the birds represent. The most popular one is rooted in the red scare or communism. And perhaps that is true, but the real villain (character of opposition) is not the birds but the townsfolk of Bodega Bay. The birds are the personification of the mistreatment of and unwelcoming attitudes of the residents toward Melanie. In a similar fashion, the villain of Jaws is the mayor because he is the personification of the folly of man.

When the true oppositional character in a screenplay is an entity, force, or idea, that component has to be personified in a character(s) because film is a visual storytelling medium, so the outdated, nationalistic attitudes of the locals is personified in the birds. Moreover, the ornithologist in the diner stated that if birds of different species flocked together, then all hope would be lost for humanity as we couldn’t stand a chance against them. That foreboding prediction came to pass as both crows and seagulls (who do not mix together in real life) massed together and terrorized the town and its people. As the birds are the original inhabitants of Bodega Bay, the humans represent the outsiders. This symbolism is also witnessed in how the townsfolk banned together to force Melanie out of the town and in how Mitch’s mother urges him to send Melanie back to San Francisco. All through the movie, there are images and sequences of the way outsiders can be marginalized by the majority of the native inhabitants. Human civilization has long sense been guilty of stigmatizing or marginalizing outsiders. At the root of the symptoms of intolerance is fear. So, Hitchcock took that root cause of unwelcoming attitudes and mistreatment and adapted it into a timeless horror film. It holds up so well because fear is still evident in how certain groups of people treat another in our lives today. Hitchcock used a combination of blue screen and practical effect technologies to bring the terror to life. And of those two approaches, it’s mostly practical-effect driven, all the way down to the real birds that were used during the production (with proper bird trainers/wranglers).

Three scenes that I want to highlight are the birthday party, downtown attack scene, and the upstairs room at the showdown. Nowadays, these scenes would be full of CGI and other post-production work. The actors would be acting with no birds on set, or very few anyway. For authenticity, puppets, mechanical, and real birds were used for these scenes to increase the realness and give the actors something to truly be afraid of. In fact, so many real birds were used that there were multiple large bird enclosures on the set that used as the temporary home of the stars of the film. In addition to bird wranglers, the American Humane Society was on set every day to monitor the treatment of the birds. The birthday party scene was composed of rotoscoping birds, blue screen shots of birds, papier-mache birds, and birds that were tied to actors and even more birds that were freely flying within the enclosure built around the set. Although most of the birds remained in the aviary, a few got out. And to this day, there are decedents of those birds living in the rafters of that sound stage on the Universal lot. In much the same way, the students fleeing the schoolhouse and down the hill to the town center–that scene–was accomplished in very much the same way. However, with this one, the added pyrotechnics were incorporated. The iconic phonebooth was covered in birdseed and shrimp to get the birds to go completely crazy. The upstairs bedroom scene at the end of the movie was completely constructed inside a giant aviary with hundreds of birds. In addition to the birdseed and shrimp that was strewn about the room, real birds were thrown at Hedron. The terror in her eyes that you see in the scene is all too real. No amount of acting can replicate that authentic fear. Despite the very real attack of the birds, Hedron is eternally grateful to have been a part of cinematic history.

The single scene that find is the most fascinating and shows the power of Hitchcock’s innate ability to create suspense with a camera is the scene immediately preceding the schoolhouse evacuation–the scene with Melanie sitting on the park bench with the jungle gym int he background.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Alfred Hitchcock: the First Director to Brand Himself (Part 2)

Beyond name or image recognition, there is more that Hitchcock did to build his brand. Before anything else was intentionally accomplished, it was important for Hitchcock to specialize quickly and stick to it. Other than Psycho and The Birds, the rest of Hitch’s films are suspense. And even Psycho and The Birds are suspenseful as well (but skew more towards the horror genre than suspense-thriller. Hitchcock specialized in the art of suspense. And you can learn more about this specific subject by reading the book Suspense with a Camera by Jeffrey Michael “the Hitchcock Whisperer” Bays. Having grown up in the silent film days, Hitchcock took the visual storytelling techniques used in those films and adapted them to “talkies.” Interestingly, while so many were turning visual films (a bit redundant since films should be visual) and including expansive dialogue (on the verge of sounding like a stage play), Hitch embraced the power of silence and minimalist dialogue that was truly an extension of the plot itself. The camera was the unspoken star of the movie.

Hitchcock was not only a master of suspense but was also a master at surrounding himself with talent. A quick glance over his prolific filmography (approx. 50 feature films plus many TV shows) reveals that he almost exclusively worked with the best talent on screen and behind the camera. Princess Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart, Carry Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedron, Gregory Peck, and more. Hitchcock worked to forge relationships with the actors he wanted to work with. He made himself out to be someone they wanted to work with too. Of course, his reputation preceded him so many were predisposed to wanting to work with him even before meeting Hitch. This concept is referred to as branding by association. And you and I engage in this practice everyday on social media by following, commenting on, and tagging other users. We hope to be noticed, or we make ourselves someone that other influencers want to engage with. If you do all these actions under your name, then you are building your brand.

Creating engaging content, in which you are specialized, without knowing your audience can end in a lackluster performance. As a former marketing and sales professional, Hitch knew that he needed to identify his target audience to craft a story that would instantly resonate in a call to action (i.e. buying tickets). Through his studies and experience in marketing research and development, he knew how the human imagination worked and what cinematic elements would impact the audience most. Hitch started with the end result he wanted and worked backwards. Researchers call this inductive reasoning. By approaching his films this way, Hitch knew that the elements he chose to use and the method by which to execute them, he would achieve the desired result. The end result points us back to the “specialization’ step in the branding process because Hitch mastered the art of suspense with a camera evident in his ability to achieve it consistently. No one knew his audience better than Hitchcock did.

Although all the steps in Hitch’s branding process are vitally important, one step stands out in particular as perhaps the most important element. Take credit for your work. In no director today–or ever, really–have I witnessed a better and more entertaining example of taking credit for one’s work than Hitchcock. Between his famous cameo appearances and his show running of his title television program, which is largely what is responsible for making him a household name outside of cinephiles and film buffs, Hitchcock injected himself into our theatres and living rooms. And it’s that TV show’s opening that made the nine stroke profile sketch of Hitch world famous. In addition to taking credit for ones own work, there is also a need to allow others to promote you. And that’s where the critics and television hosts come in. Because of Hitch’s sense of humor and his mastery of cinematic storytelling, he was always a crowd favorite. Even though he never won an Academy Award (though, nominated several times), he was bestowed other awards in the US and UK. In fact, he was knighted by the Queen! So, we really should address him as Sir Alfred Hitchcock.

When many writers and directors were going full-talkie after Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer, in order to stand out from the crowd, Hitch made the decision to hold back on dialogue. Sometimes, Hitch would even have extended periods of near silence to place emphasis on the visual aspects of the conflict. Hitch described this practice of holding back on the dialogue, as holding back your cards. Using a poker game analogy, don’t lay all your cards on the table. Hitch desired to add multiple layers of conflict or dramatic irony to each scene. This process layers the story by adding new dimension to the conflict and dramatic irony. Hitchcock made it a point to guide the audience through the story versus telling them what was happening. Practices like this reinforce the idea of the Hitchcock brand.

Hitchcock’s mastery of suspenseful cinematic storytelling is demonstrated through his lack of detail-giving throughout his stories, whether we are talking his films or television shows. This action contributes to just why his films and shows are brilliant! In many ways, Hitch provides opportunities for the audience to figuratively contribute to the dialogue in the films. There is a high degree of anticipation as the audience does throughout the story; and it’s this heightened sense of anticipation that contributes to to engagement factor. Again, it may seem that there are other directors who have also done this, but Hitchcock was the first. And this is part of his brand.

What sets Hitchcock apart from his contemporaries as the first director to brand himself, is the important step of the branding process that requires the content, service, or product creator to elevate the product or service to an art form. We have plenty of examples of this today such as Apple, Lego, Disney, and yes even Michael Bay. Think about it. As soon as I mention Michael Bay, you instantly form an image of his style of motion pictures to mind. Furthermore, you know precisely what you are going to get (and not get) and you’re guaranteed to get more than two hours of explosions, homophobia, over-sexualization of women, lack of coherent plot, car chases and more. In fact, the concept of an explosion is synonymous with Michael Bay; it is his brand, so to speak. Hitchcock accomplished creating his brand decades before Bay. Whether talking about Hitchcock films today or back when they were first-run movies, the general public knew precisely what they were going to get with a Hitchcock film. Interestingly, this is why Psycho was such a big deal because Hitch broke some of his own rules to redefine the American horror film. And it’s this breaking of cinematic rules that made the film a success then and now.

Just because you have a logo, a recognizable name, and a record of successes, that does not mean that you are a brand. It’s like this: just because you have all the ingredients to make that fancy dish you had at that exclusive restaurant, that does not mean you can replicate the dish. You need the recipe that details the order and amounts. That is not unlike becoming a brand in the art and science of motion pictures. Part of being a brand goes beyond the product or service in which you have demonstrated specialization; you have to take all the respective elements of brand building, and then create an experience for the audience. Motion picture director branding is experiential. More than a couple hours of exceptional entertainment, the audience desires greatly to experience the director’s vision. Through his understanding of audience, Hitchcock knew how to activate movie goers and create an emotional connection between his name and image and what they desire for the best cinematic experience possible.

While the knowledge for motion picture producers and directors to use logos, color pallet, typography, iconography, design, and imagery strategically was not new with Hitchcock, he was the first director in Hollywood to combine the power of all those elements and the others that have been mentioned in this essay. Separately, each of the aforementioned elements can be influential tools; but combined, they are extremely powerful for developing a brand.

PART 1

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Alfred Hitchcock: the First Director to Brand Himself (Part 1)

More than an instantly recognizable silhouette. Before the idea of a director branding him or herself became as common a goal as it is today, Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the very concept of a director developing a brand that would instantly be recognizable by millions. Not only was Hitch the Master of Suspense, and still is, but he was also a master of marketing. Unknown to many, Hitchcock worked in sales and marketing before he became one of, if not the, most recognizable name in cinematic history. Between his experience in marketing and with silent filmmaking, he was a master of captivating visual storytelling way before his most well known works of cinema. I teach media and screenwriting at the University of Tampa, and I’ve often told my students that writing a compelling, memorable, effective thirty-second commercial can be more difficult than writing a two-hour film. I realize that illustration overly simplifies the respective concepts; however, the idea is that if you can proficiently tell an intriguing or impactful story in thirty-seconds, then you can proficiently write a two-hour movie. Taking what worked well in advertising and marketing, and adapting it to a cinematic diegetic structure, Hitchcock was able to capitalize on his penchant for visual storytelling and ability to prompt desired physiological and emotional responses from the audience. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as “a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” The fact that Hitch’s name and silhouette have instant meaning, definition attached to them, is evidence enough that he was a master of branding.

Prior to understanding just how Hitchcock became the first director to brand himself, it is paramount to understand how a brand–more specifically brand recognition–comes to exist in the first place. A simplistic method of understanding what defines a brand takes the form of a relationship between an image (or idea) and the individual. Relationship is key. There is an emotion attached to the relationship between the image and the products or services that it represents; moreover, this relationship is not without a practical component such as cozy fur-lined boots or an automobile with consistent impeccable quality. By extension, the relationship between an individual and a brand can create a sense of importance, safety, or class. Once a relationship is formed, then the individual experiences both physiological and emotional reactions to the sight or sound of the image or idea. Think of that feeling you get when you see the Disney castle or hear “Wish Upon a Star.” Or perhaps, imagine how you feel or react when you see a BMW or wear a Rolex. These are iconic brands that mean something to many individuals. The mere exposure to the sight, sound, or message will prompt a comprehensive response within the mind and body. As the maxim goes, “imitation is the highest form of flattery;” therefore a quality, successful product or service will be copied but never fully replicated because there is always a secret ingredient that makes the original unique. In addition to the aforementioned, when an image or idea becomes a recognizable brand, then there is a power endowed upon that image that gives that company (that owns the image, product, or service) a kind of soft power that cannot easily be quantified but it’s quite real and figuratively measurable.

Not unlike Rolex, BMW, and Disney, Alfred Hitchcock was and is also a brand–and a powerful one at that. He was the first director to become a brand; and since then, others have tried to brand themselves as well. Some with success and others with defeat. One of the keys to Hitchcock’s ability to combine the words of marketing and filmmaking in order to not only develop a reputation but become a brand, Hitchcock recognized early in his career (especially after coming to the United States) the importance of promoting himself–his actual image–in conjunction with the promotion of a particular film. He demonstrated a clearly intentional desire to ensure that his name was at the forefront of the conscious of the American public. When a particular director, who consistently delivers quality or groundbreaking films, links the outstanding performance of the films with his or her image, then the mere sight of or name of that director carries priceless value. Following the breakup of the studio system over the late 1940s through the 50s, there arose an increased opportunity for to claim authorship of a motion picture. Prior to the decentralization of Hollywood, most movies were completely packaged by the Studio/distribution company, with the director playing a minor role. With the new opportunities to connect a motion picture to the director during marketing, it paved the way for directors to advance their own careers as well as the success of the movie. As studio authorship decreased, individual (director or producer) authorship increased!

According to Janet Staiger in her essay Creating the Brand: the Hitchcock Touch, she outlines four significant criterion that apply to image or brand as it relates to showbusiness. (1) the character persona that is created by selection of performances in film, tv, web media, etc (2) the performer (acting ability) in those mediums (3) the worker/laborer that develops from what is learned about the individual’s professional life in respect to business dealings and (4) the private persona that derives from the individual’s off-camera personal life. Whereas these criteria are more aligned with an actor or actress, these elements can be applied, by extension, to understanding Hitchcock as a brand. Hitchcock’s character can be seen through his genre selection–the types of films that a director authors. Think of his genre selection as the equivalent of the types of characters an actor or actress chooses to play. We recognize the performer element in Hitchcock’s consistent ability to direct the motion pictures with incredible precision and innovate programming for then-new mediums like television. Hitch’s worker/laborer attribute is found in what we know about his behind-the-scenes work on set and in the business offices. Most famously is his near-departure from Paramount when he went to make Psycho, for which they earmarked zero funding. He self-financed the iconic film and used his Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew. Passion, determination, and commitment witnessed. In terms of his private persona, Hitch was famously a practical joker and a family man. In fact, his daughter appeared in multiple episodes of Presents. All these elements together combine to create Hitchcock’s image.

But there is more to branding oneself than crafting an figurative or metaphysical image. There is the physical image that is recognized by the naked eye. After injecting himself into film social circles comprised of well-established directors, screenwriters, and even critics and journalists, he had a well-known name. And even though a name can carry power, it needs a tangible representation. Although one may assess that Hitchcock came up with that trademark minimalistic nine stroke silhouette, the inspiration came from a series of director sketches that appeared in The Motion Picture Studio journal in 1923. There, we have a group of then and now famous directors with Hitch appearing sideways with his famous belly out and hands in his pockets. By the 1930, Hitchcock was being heralded as a master of suspense. And that description of Hitch’s work continued until the moniker stuck in perpetuity.

In addition to the soon-to-be-moniker, film magazines took notice of his notable weight. By the late 1930s, it is said that Hitch already weighed in excess of 300lbs. As the maxim goes, “there is no bad publicity,” and that can definitely be witnessed in how Hitch’s brand continued to develop during his early days in America. The constant articles about his weight, the unprecedented success of his films, his cameos in those films, and sketched of Hitch, all those elements together created Hitch’s image. You can very much liken the evolution of the Hitchcock figurative image and physical logo to the evolution of Walt Disney’s image and either the Mickey ears or castle logo. Whereas the content of the motion pictures that both produced/directed respectively are quite different, they share one important element in common. They both injected themselves into the production and marketing of their work as much as possible. Although Walt Disney made himself into a brand (most solidly after Snow White), it was Hitchcock who was the pioneer in the very idea of a director creating his (or her) recognizable brand. In many ways, Walt follow Hitch’s direction to make his brand. But where did the famous nine stroke sketch come from? Well, according to author Robert Kapsis in his book Hitchcock: the Making of a Reputation, he drew the sketch himself in 1927 for the purpose of making it into a gift for his friends and colleagues. He created a wooden jigsaw puzzle with the iconic image an placed it in a small linen bag. I cannot think of anything more Hitchcock. This parallels how Hitch injected himself into his cinematic work both in the story itself, as a cameo, and in the marketing of his films.

Hitchcock knew that to create a brand–as everything he has accomplished for this result has been completely intentional–he needed to make a connection between his films and himself, and then himself to his name, and his name to the abstract profile. Then when someone sees the logo, they are immediately predisposed to feeling a certain way about Hitch and his films. It’s a bi-directional highway, so to speak.

Part 2

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies (1990-2003)

Since we are gearing up for the highly anticipated Halloween events at theme parks around the country and with Halloween Horror Nights Orlando and Howl-O-Scream Tampa beginning soon, I thought it would be fun to take a look at one of my all-time favorite attractions at Universal Studios Florida that was built around the magic of movies and the macabre.

Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies was an opening day attraction at Universal Studios Florida, and stood as tribute to the Master of Suspense and father of the modern horror film from 1990 to 2003. In addition to the attraction/show in Production Central near the front entrance of the park, the Bates Motel and house were located near E.T.. This set was used for the filming of Psycho IV: the Beginning, and welcomed guests from 1990 to 1998. The very heart of Universal Studios Florida was immersing the park guests into the magic of filmmaking and creating an experiential journey, placing you on the set of your favorite movies. Shifting away from the magic of movie making to completely immersing park guests into the movie worlds themselves, Universal Orlando replaced the Hitchcock attraction with Shrek 4D. Fortunately, the Horror Makeup Show and the seasonal Halloween Horror Nights event still keep the heritage of horror and suspense alive, as Universal essentially invented the American horror film. As I love exploring the past, present, and future of the parks, I thought it would be fun to hop in the wayback machine to analyze just why this attraction was popular then, and why there’s been a resurgence of interest and popularity. Perhaps we will see Hitchcock return to Universal Studios Florida in a move permanent way in the future with horror and suspense films being some of the biggest box office and critical success of recent years.

Prior to analyzing the former Florida attraction, it is important to head to the other side of the country to briefly visit the word famous studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood! Believe it or not, the Universal Studios tour dates back to 1915. That’s right. It predates Walt Disney’s Disneyland. So, one could hypothesize that Disney appropriated the idea of turning a movie studio into a theme park from Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios. Starting as a walking tour that included a stunt show until “talkies” forced the studio to shutter the tour, until it reopened as the tram tour in the 1960s, one of the crowd favorite parts of the tour is driving past the infamous Bates Motel and Bates House. As the tram passes the iconic motel and house that set the bar against which all other horror films would be judged, an actor portraying Norman Bates charges toward the tram wielding the famous butcher’s knife (Murdy, 2002). Even though the audience knows this is a tour behind the scenes of the most utilized backlot and studio in the world (Milman, 2001), there is something uniquely special about this chance encounter on the tour. And, that something is what the designers of the guest experience on the studio tour use to bring about the successful convergence combining both the original movie and the live experience. In order to successfully complete the transposition from the movie to the live experience, the attraction designers tapped into the uncanny or unheimlich (Freud, 1919) of Psycho and utilized the elements of terror and shock to facilitate the aura of horror that exists just by looking upon the timeless motel and house. Uncanny, referring to that which is revealed that should remain hidden–the return of the repressed. For more on how Freud’s uncanny influences horror films, please see my article The Psychology of Horror. 

Central to Psycho and the single most famous moment in cinema history (Cosgrove, 2013) is the brilliantly perfect shower scene. And, it served as the main event at the former Universal Studios Florida Hitchcock attraction. Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. took park guests into the world of suspense and horror as meticulously crafted and defined by Alfred Hitchcock. For those who have seen Psycho, the very sight of the motel and house is enough to strike fear into the mind and bloodstream. It is representative of the very best that horror cinema is able to offer society. In no attraction, based off a work of horror, is there a better example of the very essence of the magic of creating horror films than in the synergistic experience of beholding the four-fold elemental process of Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. 

The aforementioned attraction was divided up into four distinct parts, with the famous shower scene being the central focus (ThePsychoMovies.com, 2014). According to an interview with one of the producers of the attraction, Susan Lustig describes the process of creating a horrific live experience from the horror of the iconic movie itself. Just like a horror movie is divided up into parts, or has a cinematic structure, so too did the Hitchcock attraction. There are many parallels between the famous shower scene and the live attraction. In the movie, the sequence leading up to the shower scene is very much a preshow in the same way the attraction contains a preshow area. The preshow in the movie is when Norman is gazing through the peephole into the room of Marion as she undresses. Just like Norman is visually gathering information about Marion, the park guests in the preshow area gather information about Hitchcock’s career and a glimpse into his masterful techniques. Thanks to “idrion,” you can watch the old preshow video below!

Next, the park guests sit through clips of 3D versions of Dial M for Murder and The Birds. Before 3D movies became commonplace in your local cinema, Hitchcock experimented with it back in the mid 20th century. Much like he was a pioneer of more traditional visual storytelling, he also experimented with color 3D films. On the note of his groundbreaking decisions as a film director, Hitch was also a pioneer in the early days of television with his show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While sitting in the Hitchcock 3D theatre, park guests watched an entire scene from Dial M for Murder and select scene from The Birds. In a manner of speaking, this part of the attraction worked to assault the eye with suspense and terror; moreover, this presentation prepped the mind for experiencing the horror in the next room. Paralleling this element of the attraction to the film, is Norman’s actions after he spies on Marion and before “mother” takes over. Between the time Norman looked upon Marion through the peephole and puts on the wig and dress, he sits in the kitchen and presumably debates with mother on what to do. In a similar way, you were also faced with what to do with the information you gathered from the presentation. You could go onto the next room or exit the attraction. As we all know, following that scene, “mother” returns to the bathroom to save her son from Marion. And you, much like Normal/Mother, will soon head to the infamous Bates Motel bathroom. The old Hitchcock 3D theatre is the one currently used by Shrek 4D, an attraction that pales in comparison.

After the 3D movie, the park guests enter the Hitchcock Stage and look upon recreations of the motel, shower, and house. The main show at the attraction is the Hitchcock Stage where the infamous shower scene is reenacted before a live audience. A side note: if you experienced the Krampus HHN26 house, then you were in the old Hitchcock stage! In addition to the Bates House and Motel, there is a recreation of the tub/shower used by Hitchcock to film the scene. At this point in the movie, Marion is thoroughly enjoying her shower, cleansing herself from her transgression of stealing the money. Hitch constructs the scene in such a way that the audience gets both objective and subjective camera shots from inside and outside the shower. All of a sudden a shadowy figure approaches the opaque shower curtain and throws it open, wielding a knife. The sinister figure stabs Marion repeatedly; and through more than fifty cuts (editing cuts), the scene is played before the people in the dark. Likewise, this same scene is brought to life for the studio audience at Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies. Through mechanical engineering and film production techniques, the cast of the show reveals how the master of suspense filmed this iconic scene. Whereas you may think that this reveal of the “man behind the curtain,” so to speak, may impact the brilliance of this scene, it actually gives audiences a greater appreciation of it. It’s attractions like this that I miss from the Universal Studios parks and resorts lineup. In order to experience the show for yourself, checkout the following video from SandhillDigger.

Following the show on the Hitchcock Stage, the park guests walk into a museum-like room revealing many of Hitchcock’s secrets and techniques in some of his most notable films. It parallels the end of Psycho when the psychiatrist is analyzing Norman and explaining how and why he did what he did. You could even peer through binoculars to the apartment building across the street just like in Vertigo. For the cinephile or film buff, this museum opened eyes and minds to the magic that was the films of Hitchcock. If there was any doubt that he was a pioneer ahead of his time, which may explain why he never won an Oscar but was nominated several times, then this exhibition puts those doubts to bed. Just like Norman was the forerunner to the classic slasher and father of cinematic psychopaths, Hitchcock is still the master of the art of suspense and horror cinema.

Horror has always been popular and bankable; however, in the last several years with arthouse horror making it big, classic franchises getting new installments, and horror television taking off with the debut of American Horror Story, there has been a resurgence in popularity among general audiences and younger millennials. Since horror is the best genre for creatively and viscerally exploring what it means to be human, social and institutional constructs, gender roles, religion, and more, the general public is drawn to it in order to provide a different perspective on social commentary. With this newfound interest in the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock is once again in the forefront of minds. When movies such as the recent Searching and others such as Get Out, A Cure for Wellness, and A Quiet Place being compared to Hitchcock–or at least elements of the respective films–those whom are developing their taste for cinema look to see why and how Hitch was influential. Interest in the Master of Suspense is once again growing. With such an interest and growing fanbase, perhaps Universal will once again look for a way to integrate Hitchcock into the park, even if just for HHN.

 

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Bibliography

Cosgrove, Ben, The Shower Scene in Psycho, Time Magazine, November 16, 2012

Davis, Susan, The Theme Park as a Global Industry, Media Culture and Society, Sage Publications, July 1996

Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press, London, 1919

King, Geoff, Ride-Films and Films as Rides in the Contemporary Hollywood Cinema of Attractions. Cineaction, 2000

Milman, Andy, Future of Themed Entertainment, Journal of Travel Research, Sage Publications, 2001

Murdy, John, The World Famous Universal Studio Tour, The Park Insider Magazine, Summer 2002

Movie Massacre.com, Dismantling of Universal Studios: Bates Motel and House, June 21, 2010, Accessed from http://www.moviemassacre.com/blog/the-evolution-of-universal-studios-florida-part-1

Oliver, M., & Bartsch, A. (2010). Appreciation as Audience Response: Exploring Entertainment Gratifications Beyond Hedonism. Human Communication Research

Psycho, Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Universal Studios, 1960

Singer, Matt, Jaws and the Changing Face of Movie Theme Parks, Independent Film Channel website, 2011

Universal Studios Florida Attraction, The Psycho Movies.com, Accessed from http://www.thepsychomovies.com/archive/floridaattraction.html

 

Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.

If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?

Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.

It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.

For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.

When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.

Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.

While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.

Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of  civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.

The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic ParkE.T.Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!

Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake PlacidPiranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.