Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Double Feature: The Birds (1963) and Jaws (1975)

What would happen if birds suddenly began attacking a small town?

What would happen if a mega shark suddenly began terrorising a small island town?

Or, what would happen if nature began acting in a way that threatened our normal (human) way of life?

This question is the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) and Steven Spielbergs' Jaws (1975). These famous, pithily titled films focus on the sudden threat posed by previously unproblematic creatures: the bird population of Bodega Bay, California in The Birds, and Amity Island in Jaws. While behaviour such as attacking and killing people is expected of sharks, Jaws makes it clear that this shark is like none seen before: it's huge, highly territorial and most frighteningly, stealthy.

It is interesting to try and classify these films' genres. Wikipedia lists The Birds as a suspense/horror film, while Jaws is a thriller. However, Jaws is also a suspense/horror film, particularly when one considers the impact it had on audiences, making many think twice about going into the water again. If horror films take aim at our most primal fears then surely Jaws and The Birds are examples of the genre. Surely there is no greater primal fear than being attacked by wild animals, a fear that is rooted in our evolutionary history. It takes us back to hunting and gathering, where humans were at risk of being prey to other creatures. Personally, I find these types of horror films more scary than gore or supernatural pieces.

There are also elements of the disaster movie: the problem that besets these towns is natural (of nature), and there is a moral undertone to the story. The birds first attack Melanie, who is the beautiful outsider and threatens to disrupt a part of the town's life. They don't kill her, but she is left severely disturbed. The iconic last shot, where Mitch and his family take her away is terrifying for its stillness; the birds don't react, but let the group leave, almost as if they have achieved their wish: Melanie is going.

My favourite film critic Mark Kermode maintains the argument that Jaws is not about sharks, but adultery. This is because in Peter Benchley's source novel, Hooper has an affair with Brody's wife; he is subsequently killed by the shark in the third act. In the film, Hooper doesn't and survives the third act along with Brody. Though Kermode's argument is rather tenuous (it may be about sharks, but it is not primarily about adultery), the shark's first victim is rather typical of a disaster film: a young person (here a woman) who foolishly goes swimming at night. Her companion is too drunk to make it into the water (his punishment is discovering her body).

We never learn why the shark or the birds have started terrorising the towns. Presumably the shark is acting on its instincts, looking for food, but it continues to pursue the town and its inhabitants with a relentlessness that implies this is not about food. The birds don't kill for food, only attacking people's eyes, leaving the blind corpses as warnings to others. Is it man's hubris that is being attacked?

Jaws and The Birds employ tropes from several different genres and subgenres, creating thrilling and frightening stories that unsettle our ideas about our place in nature. On a side note, it is interesting to compare their soundtracks. Jaws features possibly the most recognisable theme tune ever put to screen (identifiable from its first two notes); The Birds famously features no non-digetic music (out of world).

What other nature-based horror thriller films fill you full of dread?


  1. An interesting combination.

    For the last few years I've been pushing this idea: if you ever get around to the original Night of the Living Dead, compare it with The Birds. I think Romero basically took the last half hour of The Birds and remade it with flesh-eating ghouls.

    Also, I'd recommend checking out The Grey.

    1. Thank you for the recommendations! I can definitely see zombie-like behaviour in the birds in The Birds.