Entertainment

For 'The Birds'

Revisiting Hitchcock's classic thriller, 50 years after it first scared the crap out of me

When I was about 7, my grandfather and I watched the TV premier of "The Birds," Alfred Hitchcock's classic, starring Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels. I had never seen anything so terrifying in my life, not since the wicked Flying Monkeys from "The Wizard of Oz." Nothing.

There are two scenes in particular that I remember like it was yesterday: Melanie/Tippi finds shelter from the birds in a phone booth only to have the birds dive-bomb the booth and smash the glass. Then a guy with a face ripped to shreds unexpectedly appears at the phone booth only to vanish when hoards of birds presumably finish him off.

It just came on so quickly that there was no time for me to hide my eyes. I was better prepared a little later on when the mother opens a door in her friend's house, and she sees mayhem—a dead gull stuck in the broken glass of the window, a dead crow on the bed—and then, slumped in the corner, she sees her friend pecked to death, with empty bloody eye sockets. Even though I hid against my grandfather, I had to peek.

No one in my family really gave it much thought that Alfred Hitchcock might not be appropriate for a child. They loved horror and suspense films and TV shows like "The Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery," and thought nothing of showing these to me, expecting that one day I, too, would inherit the horror gene. This was the early 1960s—before the current ratings system, and way before people fretted over the psychological damage inflicted upon children.

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For the past 50 years or so, I've somehow avoided watching "The Birds" again (though I'm a Hitchcock fan and have seen his other films numerous times). It's not that I'm censoring the film, it's more like a subconscious block—I just don't want to relive the feeling I had when I first saw it, to say nothing of the year I was terrified of everything.

Not long before my grandfather and I watched "The Birds," my mother, her new husband, new baby and I moved into a new house in a new subdivision. Before that it was just me and my mother in a small apartment with my grandparents in the same building. At the end of the summer that I saw "The Birds," I would be starting a new school in second grade.

At night, in my bedroom that felt far away from my mother, I heard the house creak and groan. After I saw the movie, the noises sounded like birds scratching to get in. I ran into my mother's room crying. She assured me they were just the sounds of the house "settling in." This running to her room crying or being too petrified under the covers to even move, lasted for quite a while.

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Then second grade started. On the first day or maybe the first week of school, I set out alone early in the morning. I got a few houses down in our cul-de-sac, but still a few houses from the corner, where the school was at the end of the street, when I stopped in horror. A flock of maybe 20 crows landed on the neighbor's newly-seeded lawn. The birds were on both sides of the sidewalk where the lawn stretched.

I'm sure my little heart pounded wildly but I soldiered on. In the movie, the family escaped by walking, calmly and slowly, among thousands of seething birds. Besides, I couldn't turn back; my mother was busy with the baby and I didn't want to be late for school.

So I paused, made myself as small and inconspicuous as possible, barely breathing, and took one silent, tiny step after another. As I passed the house I walked backwards, keeping an eye on them until I got to the corner, and then ran as fast as I could all the way to the school.

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Fast-forward to this past Halloween, when I saw a guy in a costume from "The Birds"—1960s pencil skirt and matching jacket, low heels and a blond stylized wig with fake life-size blackbirds stuck in it and askew on his shoulder and arm. It was hilarious. I'd now probably think of the film as a campy classic, I thought.

And so I decided to put that assumption to the test. Last week, I finally got around to seeing it again—by myself—and a few things struck me (although none of them were actually angry birds).

First of all, I was completely unaware of how much of the film is about children! If you recall, children are attacked at an outdoor birthday party early on. The birds land on playground equipment, as Tippi Hedren slowly smokes a cigarette, unaware that flocks of crows are gathering behind her—while the children sing an annoyingly repetitive song inside the school.

Their teacher subsequently tells them to slowly walk and then run down the hill, but once they start running, the birds are on them and then the teacher (spoiler alert!) is pecked to death. Children are later trapped inside a diner with their mother as she frets about the gruesome tales the locals are telling, and the gas station across the street blows up. Not exactly my idea of campy fun, but OK.

However, the two scenes from my childhood still held me in their thrall. More than 50 years later and I was still shocked when that man's bloody face appears at the phone booth amidst the birds. And the scene where the mother slowly walks down the hall in perfect stillness to open the door and find bird carnage and mayhem, and then the dead body in the corner with the eyes pecked out? I jumped off the couch just as I did all those years ago. Hitchcock wasn't called the master of suspense for nothing.

I stayed inside for the next few days and, to be perfectly honest, was less than thrilled about taking a shower, too.

   
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