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 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

 

The “Attraction” of Horror: a ‘Psycho’analysis (part 2 of 2)

UnivHollywood_BatesMotelSuccessful movie-themed attractions (stage shows or rides) create an atmosphere that is often built upon a foundation consisting of confrontation and direct simulation rather than long, sustained narratives (King, 2000). This is true of the horror film as well. Horror is a genre nearly as old as cinema itself. The horror film, according to Linda Williams, contains three basic elements: narrative, character, and setting. These same elements can be found in movie-themed attractions at theme parks (2000).

Regarding Psycho in particular, the setting consists of very liminal* spaces such as the opening hotel, the Bates house, and bathroom. This same idea can be applied to a theme park attraction because the park guests are often corralled into smaller, intimate places that serve to advance the next element. Narrative is the foundation that both themed attractions and movies are built upon. The narrative, or diegesis, is the story. Diegetically, horror films contain a story that is segmented into the following sequence: order–>disorder–>order. Increasingly, the modern horror film is often left in disorder, or an order that is dissimilar from the original (2000). Movie-themed attractions usually introduce the park guests to a short-form story based on the original, and the ride is the vehicle that takes the guests through the story that can consist of threats and chases, followed by triumphs. In regards to the character element, the characters are those who are the instruments through which the plot is advanced. Normally, characters are people or animals, but can also be inanimate objects of significance (Williams, 2000). The park guests usually encounter characters from the source material along the journey of the ride.

HitchcockBirds“Alfred Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies” (Universal Studios Florida) was divided up into four distinct parts, with the famous shower scene being the central focus (ThePsychoMovies.com, 2014). Just like a horror movie is divided up into parts, or has a cinematic structure, so too did the Hitchcock attraction. Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies was divided up into the following areas: preshow, 3D theatre, Psycho stage, and interactive area. There are may 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. The preshow is the area that preps the audience for what they are too experience. By using the same principles of creating suspense that Hitchcock used, the preshow area reveals just enough to elicit feelings of anticipation and anxiousness.

Next, the park guests sit through clips of 3D versions of Dial M for Murder and The Birds. This preps the mind for experiencing the horror in the next room. Likewise, 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. Following that scene, we return to the bathroom and enter the shower with Marion. 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. 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, and 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.

HitchcockAttractionFinalRoomFollowing the show on the Hitchcock Stage, the park guests walk into a museum-like interactive 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. Just like Norman is the master of slasher films, so is Hitchcock the master of the art of suspense and horror cinema. A close reading of these areas reveals that they each take an element of the setting, narrative, or characters and use the tool of spectacle to bring them to life for the live audience. The preshow area acts as the prime for the horror/suspense pump that is gearing up. Watching the 3D scenes from The Birds and Dial M for Murder serves to generate feelings of ensuing chaos and acts as the big event that causes something to go wrong in the otherwise narrative that is in order (remember: orderdisorderorder). Following the 3D Theatre, is the central Psycho stage that takes any order and casts it to the wind and enables the horror of the shower scene to come to life for the naked eyes of the audience.

Hitchcock AttractionThis was a main attraction at the theme park until its dismantlement in 2002 to make way for the Shrek: 4D experience. From the aforementioned explanation by one of the producers of the attraction, the audience was completely immersed in the magic of bringing a Hitchcock thriller to life, and got to witness the most famous single scene in all of cinema history. This was all done with practical effects, just as Hitchcock would have done it. But, with the advent of computer generated imagery and incredibly accurate and time efficient non-linear video editing, most of the effects can be generated in other ways. Although it remained one of the most popular attractions at the theme park until its closure, Universal saw the future of attractions and decided to do away with nostalgia and pave the way for digital simulated attractions (Singer, 2013).

Click HERE for Part 1

*(adjective) 1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold