The Birds is about 50% anticipation and 50% payoff. There are birds throughout but they only start doing anything of value midway through. That might seem contrary to what you remember. I first watched The Birds several years ago and my memory of it was “birds attack people.” On a second viewing, it was a surprise to see and remember how much time and effort is spent on its characters prior to the attacks. That might not be something that gets remembered as well, but it is one of the reasons The Birds works as a horror-thriller.
The movie stars Tippi Hedron as Melanie, a socialite who doesn’t take life terribly seriously, enjoys jokes and pranks, and sometimes gets into trouble. She meets Mitch (Rod Taylor), a lawyer, at a bird shop. They have some witty back-and-forth, and she eventually drives to Bodega Bay to both surprise him with some lovebirds and because she likes him—but doesn’t want to immediately let on. More fun character interactions occur, some supporting characters are introduced, and then birds start attacking the citizens of the Bay in droves.
The last part goes on for some time—right up until the end of the movie, actually. It’s the crux of The Birds, it’s what anyone who’s seen the movie will remember, and it terrified audiences when the movie was released in 1963. Some of the images hold up to this day, like seeing a man whose eyeballs have been forcibly removed from their sockets, while many of the bird effects feel dated. Do those lacking effects ruin the movie? No, but they do take away from its attempts at immersion.
Why it works anyone comes down to a couple of things. The first is its characterization, which is given a lot of time and focus in its first half. We get to know these characters, how they feel about each other, how they used to feel about each other, and what their various views are on many different things. They’re built up well, so when the birds hit the fan, so to speak, we understand why they react in a certain way and we’re invested in their survival.
The Birds is an effective horror-thriller about birds attacking people—a simple premise that’s executed well.
We also never find out why the birds are attacking, which adds to the suspense and mystery. The rule of thumb is that the more we know about something, the less scary it becomes. There isn’t even much of a hint as to why the birds are dive-bombing innocent people or trying to peck their way into boarded-up houses. They just are, and that’s scary enough. Sure, it probably could have brought in an environmental message or something about animal cruelty—there’s a line early in the film that questions the need to keep birds in cages—but it’s not necessary, and if it were to be mishandled it would drag the film down.
The dialogue is surprisingly strong, which gives many of the actors meatier roles than one might expect. Take a diner argument about why the birds are acting this way, and what it means. Or even an early scene in the bird shop, with a fantastic back-and-forth exchange between Hedren and Taylor. It’s lively and engaging, and keeps us watching while the film builds suspense as we wait for the birds to do their thing.
The Birds is an effective horror-thriller about birds attacking people—a simple premise that’s executed well. It has a great deal of buildup—which both allows us to get to know the characters and gives the film time to generate suspense—and then features several iconic shots once the birds get down to business. While some of the effects don’t hold up, they don’t detract too much from the overall presentation. It has good characters, lively dialogue exchanges, a great build, and lots of suspense and mystery. The Birds is great.
Conclusion: The Birds is a very good horror-thriller.
Recommendation: If you haven’t seen The Birds, see The Birds.