Sinister Summer: “The Exorcist” Retrospective Review

Pea soup anyone? Not only one of the most profitable horror films of all time, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains timeless. Celebrating its 45th anniversary last year, this truly is the definitive possession horror film. Thematically, it takes the concept of the external “monster” and moves it into the mind and body (of a little girl). In many ways, Linda Blair’s Regan takes the psycho-social horror of Psycho and combines it with a classic monster and adds in a Rosemary’s Baby spin. This trifecta of excellence works together in order to provide the plot and characters of The Exorcist with substance. Much like Psycho was the first modern horror film and proto-slasher, The Exorcist is widely regarded as the first modern possession film. There are elements of possession in Rosemary’s Baby, but I don’t technically consider it a possession film. This film also takes the idea of the “home invasion” to the next level by having the innocent Regan’s body invaded. There are many past horror films that were once viewed as terrifying, but over the course of time, do not evoke the same degree of fear in contemporary times; however, this is a film that remains nightmare-inducing for many who are brave enough to watch it. Furthermore, adjusted for inflation, it remains among the top 10 highest grossing films of all time.

For more than 40 years, this was highest grossing horror film of all time (until 2017’s IT), this is the one that started the possession film sub genre of horror. A visiting actress (Ellen Burstyn) in Washington, D.C., notices dramatic and dangerous changes in the behavior and physical make-up of her 12-year-old daughter 9Linda Blair). Meanwhile, a young priest (Jason Miller) at nearby Georgetown University begins to doubt his faith while dealing with his mother’s terminal sickness. When the little girl begins to spiral violently out of control, lashing out at her mother and everyone in the Georgetown manner, and even levitating, her worried mother seeks medical help, only to hit a dead end. The young priest, however, thinks the girl may be possessed by a demon. The priest makes a request to perform an exorcism, and the church sends in an expert (Max von Sydow) to help with the difficult job.

While many films prior to The Exorcist depicted the occult, few (if any) have endured like this icon of horror has. Perhaps what frightens us most about this film is the fact of how close to home it hits. The MacNeil family could be our own or our neighbors. By default, the very setting and atmosphere of the film is relatable and realistic. There is a high degree of vulnerability on display. Not only can our homes be invaded, but our bodies can too. Whereas some may only see the effects of the demonic possession and focus on them (the vomiting, masochistic behaviors, or focussed vulgar profanity), these are all incidental. The point of The Exorcist is to provide social commentary on dehumanization and how evil forces and behaviors can affect us in such a way that we feel like animals unworthy of God’s love. But no matter how dark times get, redemption is possible. Whereas demonic possessions are not a daily part of our lives, by extension, this can be explored as a metaphor for the dehumanization witnessed today such as sexual assault, physical/emotional abuse, and other ways in which people are devalued.

There are few films that I would say this about–The Exorcist is a perfect film. Other examples are AlienPsycho, Sunset Boulevard, and The Shining. Compared to the schlock-fest horror movies that we often get today (until more recently with films such as Hereditary, Midsommar, and Us), this is a beautiful, bold work of cinema that pushed the envelop then, and even pushes the boundaries by today’s standards. There is a sense of prestige about this film; and not just a classy for the sake of pretense–there is a sense of purpose in this motion picture. Do all horror films need to mean something deep or provocative? Certainly not. Some have the purpose to simply entertain, frighten us, or even make us laugh. But The Exorcist is a special horror film in that there is immense depth to the story that takes us to incredibly dark places–to the point of no return if you will. Then in a brilliant fashion, turns it into a story of sacrifice and redemption. Not only was this one of the most frightening movies of all time when it was release din 1973–commonplace as possession movies may seem now–this was groundbreaking back then, it was also nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture! This was the first time that a horror film had ever been nominated for this most prestigious award. Furthermore, there are few other films that come with such an infamous status inspiring legends, curses, and more. Much like with Poltergeist, this film has also spawned macabre rumors. Everything about this film: direction, screenwriting, cinematography, cast, set design, score, and the editing work flawlessly to combine to become one of the greatest films ever made.

In screenwriting, there are two types of plots: action-driven and character-driven. That isn’t to suggest that an action movies don’t have great characters (Die Hard certainly has great characters) nor does a character movie lack gripping action (Nightcrawler has great action sequences), but the principle focus is on one or the other. Look to see wherefrom the conflict is derived. In a character-driven film, the conflict is derived primarily from characters, whereas in an action-driven movie, the conflict is primarily derived from the action. The characters of The Exorcist are utterly fascinating and relatable. We might remember Regan the most from the movie, but the other lead and supporting characters are also incredibly interesting. Part of the reason why this film resonates with us so, and is the material of nightmares, is because of how realistic it is, despite the supernatural element; this realism is brought to life by the incomparable performances. There is so much more to this movie besides the spinning head, spiderwalk (in the director’s cut), and the famous pea soup scene. Those scenes, and others, contribute to the overall experience of the film, but it’s the character-driven conflict and relationships that keep us coming back. Not only do we come back to the film over and over for the character, but we were able to experience memorable scenes and action sequences for ourselves at Halloween Horror Nights 26 at Universal Orlando.

Before we talk about the most famous character from the film Regan, let’s analyze the other two leads and chief supporting character: Regan’s mom Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the young priest Damian Karras (Jason Miller), and the exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). Both Burstyn and Miller were nominated for Academy Awards for their respective performances.

Chris MacNeil is first and foremost a mother, but her acting career is also important to her. But when her daughter needs her, she is willing to put her career to the side to go to great lengths to help her. Beyond her role as a mother, she represents a person whom does not have faith in God. She is also faced with the life crisis of growing frustrated with her divorce and career as a mainstream actress. Father Karras is a highly educated man of faith, but his faith is strained because of his mom’s illness and death, causing a crisis. He is struggling with what many of us struggle with: if God is love, then why do bad things happen to good people? Furthermore, he represents the qualities of self-sacrifice and redemption, as well as personifies the empathy of psychiatry and a pragmatic priesthood. By extension, Father Karras can also be read as someone whom exemplifies that “science” and “faith” are not independent of nor negate one another. Lastly, Father Merrin is not only the very silhouetted image that is engrained in your mind when you think of this movie, but he is the inverse of Father Karras in that–whereas Karras is a pragmatic priest, Father Merrin is a zealous priest. Because Merrin was unable to defeat the demon Pazuzu (the one that possesses Regan), he is faced with his own redemption story. He is also going through the life crisis of failing health.

All three adults are each faced with their own respective crises that are explored through the possession of this little girl whom is also facing her own biological life crisis of puberty. Without knowing much about any of these characters during the first act of the film, we know that each one is vulnerable and doubts their own abilities and the direction they are going in life.

Central to The Exorcist is Regan (played by Linda Blair). Regan is both our central character and our character of opposition. Technically the character of opposition is Pazuzu, but the demon is manifested in Regan. Much like with her adult counterparts, Regan is also facing a crisis. She is experiencing what every young person goes through (to a greater physiological extent, girls)–puberty. As we know, at that stage in life, the human body undergoes what can be equated to psychological and physiological trauma. This trauma is manifested in the behaviors that we witness on screen from Regan’s explicit language and masochistic sexual assault. Regan can also be read as a home that has been invaded by an external monster, but this monster has not only defiled a home but has gone further, and more intimate to defile an innocent girl. Essentially, we’ve taken the idea of the external monster and placed it in the mind and body to exponentially increase the level of trauma and terror. Through another lens, we can witness the conflict that exists between parents and adolescents in which parents may view their kid(s) as a monster that has taken over the previously agreeable, obedient child, and how both parties must work through the conflict in order to emerge healthier and closer.

From page to screen, the cinematic excellent continues. The Exorcist is full of nightmare-inducing special effects that stick with you for the rest of your life. Not only does the very image of the transformation terrify the eyes of the audience, the minds of the audience are also confronted with the frightening realization of what the demon is doing to Regan’s body. From swearing at the central characters every chance it gets to displaying severe traumatizing masochistic behavior, the brutality is intense as you have sympathy for this young girl that you established a connection with from the beginning of the movie. One of the elements that I find particularly interesting, given the extent to which special effects are used, is just how real the movie feels. The supernatural elements of the story could have very easily pushed the film into the unbelievable category (like many others), but William Friedkin’s cinematic masterpiece stays grounded in reality. Looking to the characters themselves, the performances are so genuine that you feel that you are going through the very same crises that are on display. For those whom believe possession is real, it hits scarily close to home; and for those whom are skeptical, it is an equally terrifying possibility.

The showdown and realization of the film are just as deep as the first and second acts by playing around with the externalization of that which was internalized and the physical and mental journeys of the characters. Not only is duality and possession shown through the context of demon possession, but the film also comments that internalized physical and psychological trauma can be a powerful force that ostensibly takes control on ones body. And that is another reason why it still terrifies audiences to this day.

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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“Midsommar” Art House Film Review

Ars gratia artis. The latin inscription around MGM’s Leo the Lion is the best way I can describe Ari Aster’s Midsommar. The highly anticipated companion followup horror piece to last year’s Hereditary arrived in theatres nationwide last night–to a packed house, I might add. Although even I use the terms movie and film interchangeably in casual conversation, this is a motion picture that I will refer to as a film not a movie. For fellow cinephiles, this is the type of film that reminds us of the power of the moving image and the art of visual design. Film is a visually driven medium, and Midsommar exhibits that in spades. Although it was predicted to be then confirmed by the director to be a companion piece to Hereditary there is little similarity except for one important point: the theme of grief. Furthermore, Midsommar also comments on relationship revenge and drug culture. I’ve heard this film described as one long acid trip by folks on Film Twitter, and that is not entirely inaccurate. From edibles to cocktails, many of the scenes are viewed through the lens of a drug-induced reality that creates a fever-dream-like state of being. Trippy, is putting this cinematic experience lightly. And it is that. A cinematic experience unlike any other that I have ever witnessed. Whereas, in my opinion, this film’s greatest flaw is the lack of a compelling plot–and that’s a big deal, no mistaking it–the film excels at typifying film as art. More specifically, this film is like a work of art in a museum that confronts the viewer with thought-provoking imagery that elicits a plethora of interpretations. And the ability for an art film to prompt us to interpret it differently gives the film the added dimension that doesn’t come to cinemas often.

Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) are a young American couple with a relationship on the brink of falling apart. But after a family tragedy keeps them together, a grieving Dani invites herself to join Christian and his friends on a trip to a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival in a remote Swedish village that is the home of one of their graduate school friends. The carefree summer holiday in a land of eternal sunlight takes a sinister turn when the insular villagers invite their guests to partake in festivities that are increasingly disturbing.

Juxtaposition. There is a brilliant contrast in the imagery of this film. While much of the film is brightly lit and colorful, within that serene landscape and color pallet are acutely disturbing moments that will stick with you long after the film ends. And the nightmare-inducing imagery is not limited to body horror, there are times that unnerving images are of a surreal nature, or perhaps an otherwise warped perspective that keeps you on the edge of your seat. From carefree atmospheres filled with laughter and positivity to depictions of suicide, murder, and mutilation, you will find it all in Midsommar. There is a rich, immersive nature in this film that is inescapable. You will be instantly sucked into the beautifully twisted visually stunning story. Every scene is crafted with such a commitment to the art of visual storytelling that the plot takes a backseat, which oddly enough suits this film nicely. If I was to compare this film to literature, then it would be a poem versus prose. Both poems and prose tell stories, but poems are emotionally driven whereas prose is plot-driven. This is clearly an emotionally driven motion picture that will have you along for the pleasurable unpleasure ride for the rather lengthy runtime. Each frame is an artful expression of the emotion of the moment, and it my delight or rock you to your core.

With it being such a unicorn amongst horror films, if you’re searching for film to compare it to (which can be unfair), for all intents and purposes, I feel that you will find elements of Eyes Wide ShutThe Wickerman, and Requiem for a Dream. It also appears that Aster took inspiration from directors such as: Kubrick, de Palma, and Friedkin. It is difficult to talk about the thought-provoking content without getting into spoilers, but there are many ways to interpret the content and intention of the film. I found the film to creatively express, through the art of the moving image, the ideas of dealing with the (1) PTSD of untimely death and the grief that follows (2) relationship revenge and (3) the effects of a drug-induced state of consciousness. The beginning of the film opens with witnessing the broken relationship between Dani and her boyfriend Christian followed soon by the death of Dani’s sister and parents (this is right at the beginning, so this isn’t really a spoiler). Although Christian begrudgingly keeps the relationship alive (in all fairness, he’s finished with it), he keeps Dani at an emotional distance from him and his friends. At the same time, Dani is suffering from the PTSD brought on by the untimely death of her family that has truly taken a toll on her psycho-social stability. Just like in real life, drugs (both Rx and recreational) are used as ways to both cope and attempt to rise to a higher level of consciousness to deal with the positive and negative elements of life. However, augmenting reality can lead to a dangerous path from which sometimes a return is unlikely or impossible. All three of these themes in the film inspire the mindblowing images through the story.

While I have spent the bulk of this article talking about the macabre nature of this film, it is not without its comedic elements. In fact, some have characterized it as a dark comedy. I’m not ready to refer to it as a horror comedy, but it certainly contains many absurd, laughable lines and images. To get into them would reveal some important spoilers, so I won’t do that to you. But just the very idea of these typical American graduate students in this completely foreign commune of mystic Sweeds in a surreal landscape is enough to make you laugh. And the humor is not limited to the dialogue or setting, but even the very nature of a single image is enough to bring about laughter. Again, more playing around with the contrast that juxtaposing images and music brings to a film. All throughout the film, you will be disgusted one moment and laughing the next. Still, the amount of comedy isn’t enough to bring this into the horror comedy subgenre, but it’s more or less an art house horror film with comedic moments. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hauntingly beautiful score that becomes a character in and of itself during the film.

This is not a film for general audiences. Personally, I am shocked that this cut of the film even got a theatrical release. It strikes me more as the director’s cut that you would get on the BluRay. It is a hard R. So if you’re a parent or an older sibling, think before taking your child or younger sibling who loves horror as much as you. In addition to the drug use in the film (and it’s all within context), there is full male and female nudity and even a rather explicit sex scene. Nothing is in the film for simple shock value (tho, there are shocking scenes for sure), there is an intentional purpose behind element in this film to deliver the emotionally-driven story that Ari Aster has created.

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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“Annabelle Comes Home” horror movie review

“Miss me?” Adventures in Babysitting meets The Conjuring Universe. Well it’s not bad, but not as strong as Creation. Still, it’s better than the first one. Annabelle Comes Home hit theatres Tuesday, June 25th with a new story to further develop the WarrenVerse. Inspired by the documented paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the third installment in the Annabelle franchise follows on the heels of the first Annabelle. From the very first shot to the last, this installment delivers a highly atmospheric horror movie that is not built upon jump-scare after jump-scare, but instead focusses on suspenseful windups. Unfortunately, therein lacks a substantive delivery following the engaging windup. Central to the movie is a small cast of three leading characters, so there was such a fantastic opportunity to develop these characters; regrettably, even within this intimate setting with a small group, the characters mostly fall flat. The movie has a strong first act, and transitions into the second act very well; however, we spend most of our time in that second act going in circles until the anticlimactic showdown. Because of the terrifying atmosphere created in the film, there is an excellent haunted house feel to it that I liked a lot. I generally prefer atmosphere to jump scares, although both are important and should be included in the right amounts. Ultimately, the movie fails to provide a compelling story but makes for a mostly fun horror movie.

Following the bizarre events and exorcism at the nursing students’ apartment, Ed and Lorraine Warren place Annabelle in the backseat of their car to take to their cursed artifact room at their house. To protect the world from the evil conduit Annabelle, they place her on a chair in a glass case made from glass from Trinity Church. On the eve of the Warren’s daughter Judy’s birthday, Ed and Lorraine leave for an overnight trip and leave their daughter under the care of a babysitter. While Judy and her babysitter are baking a cake, the babysitter’s friend shows up and offers to watch the cake and house while Judy uses her new rollerskates. When in the house alone, she breaks the house rule and enters the Warren’s occult museum. In this room, she unleashes an evil that will stop at nothing until it claims a soul.

Although this installment in the Annabelle franchise is better than the first one, the story is weak compared to the second one, which met with both highly positive audience and critic reviews. Like with so many horror movies, this one also suffers from an underdeveloped plot and flat characters. The plot is so underdeveloped that there is ostensibly no plot at all. It’s as if the screenwriters (James Wan and Gary Dauberman) took the premise and wrote five principle characters for it, but then forgot that the screenplay should (1) follow the three-act structure (2) include characters with well-defined external goals and internal needs and (3) start each scene as close to the end of the scene as possible. While most of the characters lack any kind of real emotional development, the character of Daniella is the only one that goes on any kind of emotional journey that allows her to grow as a result of the conflict with Annabelle. Leading and chief supporting characters in a screenplay need to have an external/measurable goal motivated by an internal need. The external goal is aligned with the action plot and the internal need is aligned with the subplot. But when your story seems to be plotting along aimlessly, therein lies a problem because it’s difficult to support character goals when there is no real end in sight. Once we are in the second act, the story just moves in circles until the anticlimactic, forced showdown lacking in any true realization.

What this movie lacks in story, it makes up for in atmosphere, production design, and non-repetitive scares. There is a sense of foreboding from the moment that the movie begins, and continues throughout. Essentially, it becomes a haunted house movie complete with all the lighting, music, and entrapment. Even before I thought much about the story and characters, when the credits began to roll, my first thought was “this would make for a great HHN house.” The atmosphere of terror is achieves though lowkey lighting, harsh shadows, the cinematography, and haunting score. The movie is not overstuffed with scares, and when there are jump scares, they are never repeated. It also helps that we only have three main characters that are all trapped in this haunted house and act as our conduit through which we also experience the evil entity in the house. If you wanna feel transported to a haunted house, then this movie does an excellent job of making you feel like you are right there with the characters. In the past, we have spent some time in the Warren’s house, but this is the first time that we spend nearly the entire movie in their literal house of horrors. The manner in which the camera movies and the music rises and falls assists in the creation of suspense, and the movie will hold you in suspense nearly the whole time. Unfortunately, the problem is that the payoff after the windup is lackluster at best. Great suspense, pool payoff. When crafting suspense in plot or with the camera, remember that the payoff should equal the windup.

If you are a horror fan, then I definitely recommend watching it in the cinema; but for general audiences, it’s one that can be enjoyed just as well at home when it hits Amazon Prime or other streaming services.

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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“Child’s Play” (2019) brief horror movie review

“Hi, I’m Chucky, wanna play?” It’s a fun horror movie, flaws and all. Let’s address the white elephant in the room. This is not as good as the original; however, instead of primarily focussing on what did not do right, I’d like to highlight what it did well. At the end of the day, this is a highly entertaining horror movie that brings Chucky’s origin into the 21st Century. Unlike the trajectory of the Child’s Play franchise after the original sequel that embraced the camp effect, 2019’s Child’s Play attempts to go full-on horror. Unfortunately, it should have gone the camp route, because I feel that would have been received more favorably. There are moments that you question whether or not they are supposed to be funny. And it’s that ambiguity that leaves us uncomfortably in the middle during many moments in the movie. Although each problem can be individually dissected to determine why it didn’t work, the long and short of it can be attributed to a weak screenplay. While the screenplay is responsible for many of the movie’s problems, the idea or premise is solid; it’s a fresh interpretation of the original premise. For the gore fans out there, the movie ups the ante quite a bit! There aren’t many kills, but the ones that we get are creative, painful, and gruesome. Whereas all the human characters are flat, lacking in anything truly redeemable, this movie does provide more time in developing the relationship between Andy and Chucky that allows us to empathize with Andy’s dilemma when confronted with Chucky’s violence. Contrary to the hype going into the anticipated voice acting of Mark Hamill as Chucky, the performance lacks anything memorable. Aubrey Plaza does a very Plaza job as Andy’s mom, and Gabriel Bateman delivers little more than a mediocre performance as Andy. You might be thinking that you could say some of these same things about 80s horror movies; however, 80s slashers were (1) a product of their time and (2) originated so many characters and ideas and (3) were largely built upon the idea of campy horror. Had the new Child’s Play went the camp route or stayed true to a serious, thought-provoking horror movie route, then it could have been received much more favorably. But hey, that marketing campaign inspired by Toy Story 4 was brilliant.

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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Twitter: RLTerry1

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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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