Earlier this month, my Twitter feed suddenly became obsessed one night. I was left completely in the dark here in The Great White North over why “#sharknado” was suddenly all anyone wanted to talk about. When I eventually learned what was going on, I laughed to myself, and then shed a silent tear for all of the amazing films going unwatched while so many “couldn’t look away”.
This past weekend, I couldn’t help but think back to that silly made-for-TV film and its stupid concept. It seems strange to say this, but as I watched this month’s entry in my Blindspot Series, I began wondering…”What could Hitch have done with SHARKNADO?”. That’s not to suggest that The Master of Suspense would ever sully himself with a story about sharks getting blown into a city – perish the thought. Instead, it’s just a general musing that when Alfred Hitchcock was on his game, he could make any crazy concept truly terrifying – even seagulls and crows. So perhaps what I should have been asking myself was “What would the directors of SHARKNADO have done with THE BIRDS?
Like so many of Hitchcock’s films, THE BIRDS begins unassumingly. In San Francisco, two people meet in a bird shop (Sidebar: Has anyone ever been in a bird shop?). A man named Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) pranks a woman named Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) by playing her for a salesperson, even though he knows full well who she is. For some reason, this leaves Melanie with an urge to get him back, and her retort takes her all the way to Mitch’s weekend home in a small coastal town named Bodega Bay.
Soon after she gets there and catches up with Mitch, strange thing start to occur. One by one, people start getting aggressively pestered by birds. Pestering soon leads to full on assault, and before long everyone in town is cowering from massive flocks that bring with them a deadly menace.
Yep, deadly birds. A classic film, still hailed by many as an all-time thriller, whose villains can usually be found bothering people for food by a shoreline. If you close your eyes, you can probably imagine what the gang at SHARKNADO would do with it, can’t you? Everything eerie would become inane. Everything menacing would turn melodramatic. Everything nuanced would seem numbing.
That’s the sort of thing that sets Hitchcock apart and made him such a special director. This is, after all, a film that is rather low-concept (birds suddenly start attacking people). However, Hitch realized that audiences want to be tickled…we want to be teased. That’s why we spend so long just getting glimpses of the birds acting weird – gathering and occasionally going rogue – while we get to know the people of Bodega Bay. It was enough that I found myself muttering “where the fuck are the birds” around the forty-five minute mark.
But Hitch is no fool. By the time all hell breaks loose, we’re no longer merely invested in Melanie and Mitch, but we also find ourself caring about Mitch’s mother, his little sister, even his ex-girlfriend! We can see what Mitch means to all of these women, and what they mean to him in turn. What’s more, we are given an even clearer indication of their character when we see how each of them take to Melanie – the strange woman he has thrust into their small-town life. In a lesser “birds attack!” film, we might not get to know any of the characters with this sort of depth. Thillers like this are usually filled with panicked masses, perhaps with a few thinly-sketched protagonists there to drive the action. We’re left without anyone to care for, which is why we sometimes start cheering for the threat…be it a giant lizard, a storm of sharks, or a flock of seagulls.
Which leads me to the moment all hell finally breaks loose.
One can’t help but smirk when one hears the idea of THE BIRDS, but lordy does Hitchcock ever make good on the premise! Not only is it freaky to see creatures that are usually so docile – skittish even – get so vicious, but the way they come and go in waves removes any feeling of superiority. Oh sure, you might feel badass in the face of a sparrow, but what do you do when whole scores of sparrows come at you – down your own chimney no less? What these creatures lack in pure physical presence they make for in sheer numbers. The outrageous suddenly becomes plausible, and we all shrink into our seat. What seemed so docile is suddenly a deadly; and it’s all around us.
It’s that understanding of the terror and how it terrorizes us that will forever separate Hitchcock from the hacks who make schlock like SHARKNADO. That tickle and tease? They just don;t know how to do it. They want to skip past the foreplay and get right down to the dirty deed.
Take, for instance, the scene in this final photo above. Coming as it does after a long close-up on Melanie’s face, seeing this as the reverse angle does indeed fill the audience with dread. However, what makes it work so much better is the way we see the scene come together. With Melanie sitting in the schoolyard, obliviously smoking, we see a solitary crow perch on that jungle gym.
The shot jump-cuts to a close-up of Melanie, still ambiguous.
Cut back to the playground, now with four crows.
Back to Melanie.
Back to the playground, now with nine crows.
Back to Melanie. We hold on her as she suddenly gets a bad feeling. By the time she finally turns around, the monkey bars are filled with a murder of crows.
Anyone could have shown Melanie sit down in front of a gathered menace; it takes a deft hand to freak the audience out while the menace gathers.
I post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for July…
Andy Hart watched THE IRON GIANT
SDG watched ANDREI RUBLEV
Will Kouf watched GIANT
Sean Kelly watched BARBARELLA
Bob (insert comment about snowflakes here) Turnbull watched IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and ABSENCE OF MALICE
Dan Heaton watched IRMA VEP
Amir Soltani watched REAR WINDOW
Josh watched DETECTIVE STORY
Courtney Small watched PICKPOCKET
Andrew “Better late Than Never” Robinson watched IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE