The Birds

It starts with Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor of George Pal’s The Time Machine) trying to buy a pair of love-birds for his kid sister. But, in a way, all the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film are love-birds. Most of them, though — the un-caged ones — are furies of the repressed, denied, and frustrated forces of love. On the one hand, The Birds is a horror film about the possible end of the human race in a war with a hundred billion birds; on the other, it’s about a mother and her new potential daughter-in-law learning to relate to one another. Seen in this way, it’s even got a happy ending.

When Mitch goes to the pet-store to buy his kid sister a pair of precisely modulated love-birds (“I wouldn’t want a pair of birds that were too demonstrative… At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to be too aloof…”), the only thing that catches his eye is Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a bird of a slightly wilder variety. (She has a gossip-column reputation involving an incident in a fountain in Rome, where she was enjoying La Dolce Vita.) The two engage in a poker-faced battle of wits, ending with Melanie, determined to get the upper hand, buying the love-birds herself and delivering them by hand to Mitch’s city apartment. But Mitch has a carefully compartmentalised private life: he spends his bachelor weeks in San Francisco, and his weekends at Bodega Bay, where he lives with his mother and sister. This particular bird has flown, so Melanie sets out after him.

At the bay, the bird attacks come at emotionally significant moments. The first occurs after Melanie has boated across the bay to sneak the love-birds into the Brenner family home. Heading back, she sees Mitch find the birds and run out of the house. She lets herself be seen, and the two adopt the sort of expressions you’d expect from a duelling early-stage couple in a screwball-comedy, each trying loftily to pretend they’re not that interested in the other. Then the first of our furies swoops down to gouge into Melanie’s perfectly-coiffured head.

The next incident — not an attack, but significant all the same — comes when Melanie has taken a room for the night with local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth. Annie is a previous pretender to the title of Mrs Mitch, and knows what stands in the way: Mitch’s widowed mother, Lydia, who’s terrified of being left alone because she let her now-dead husband do all the emotional-warmth side of things, and now finds she has nothing but criticism and disapproval to keep the family together. Just then, there’s a knock at the door, and as both women are thinking of Mitch, they perhaps hope it might be him. But no, it’s a bird. It’s just killed itself slamming into Annie’s front-door.

The third attack is at a kids’ party. Mitch’s little sister Cathy (played by Veronica Cartwright, who’d survive all these killer birds only to fall prey to a xenomorph in Alien) and her friends are playing in the garden while Mitch and Melanie go off a little way to have their first unguarded conversation (in a scene written entirely by Hitchcock himself). Here, we learn that Melanie’s mother abandoned her when she was young, leaving her scornful of the very idea of mother-love. Which makes it doubly difficult if she’s going to try to fit into Mitch’s family: Melanie is a woman who does not want a new mother; Lydia, apparently incapable of love, does not want a new daughter; but both want Mitch, so who’s going to give way? The couple return to the party and, charged as they are with this stirring-up of old, difficult emotions, induce a bird attack. The birds swoop down on the kids, as though to underline the point that all of the coming violence and trauma is rooted in childhood vulnerabilities.

Mitch tries to convince Melanie to stay in Bodega Bay, and Lydia does her best, within civilised bounds, to encourage her to leave. A swarm of sparrows burst in through the fireplace (the hearth being the heart of the home), and wreck the living room. It’s like a poltergeist visitation — pent-up, unconscious forces lashing out with no control. The next day, Lydia goes to see a neighbour to discuss the fact that neither of their chickens are eating. She finds him dead, with his eyes pecked out. It’s a (literally) pointed reminder about her dead husband, and all the reasons she has to fear Melanie’s influence on her family.

Now the attacks become more frenzied and destructive, as though the forces let loose by Melanie’s arrival in Bodega Bay — the warring unconscious wraths of Melanie and Lydia — have given up trying to be specific and personal and are now just going to flail about, smashing everything in sight. Cars blow up, men catch fire, horses run wild, everybody’s screaming. A mother at the café skewers Melanie in an outburst that only makes sense if you think of her as somehow being possessed by Lydia’s dark half, giving vent to what that ultra-controlled, over-cool woman really wants to say to her new potential daughter-in-law:

“Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said that when you got here the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! Evil!”

By now Melanie’s only rival Annie is dead and everyone’s in retreat. Holed up at the Brenner house, Melanie has that peculiar horror film urge to go upstairs, alone, to investigate the noises coming from a room (a child’s room?), whereupon she finds herself locked inside it with a tempest of birds, lashed and scratched and screeched at till she’s almost catatonic.

And it’s at this point, finally, that the new family starts to gel. As they leave the house and get into the car, Melanie squeezes Lydia’s wrist and Lydia responds with a smile. It’s only when they’ve both been terrorised to the point of trauma, and the house has been wrecked, that the two women can, at last, begin to relate to one another. Melanie, babyish with speechlessness, has gained a mother, and Lydia, forced to flee her wrecked and violated home, has found the ability to show this new daughter a hint of affection.

From one point of view, the world is on the verge of an apocalyptic war between birds and humans. From another, what we’re seeing is the Brenner family’s true inner landscape revealed — a world filled with small but fierce, barely quiescent furies of thwarted and frustrated love, which everyone must tiptoe around, like so many sharp-beaked family secrets. Cathy brings along the love-birds, and perhaps we can now understand Mitch’s wish to give his kid sister an example of love in its not-too-demonstrative, not-too-aloof form: just look at what repression, possessiveness and jealousy does to the place.

(Mrs Bundy, ornithologist:) “Birds are not aggressive creatures, miss. They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind—”
(Waitress, in the background:) “Sam—three southern-fried chicken!”
“—It is mankind, rather, who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist on this planet.”

Walkabout

I said in my Mewsings about the 1988 film Paperhouse that I couldn’t think of many children’s books that, when adapted to the big screen, turned into films for adults, but Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout from 1971 is another to add to the list, as it’s based on James Vance Marshall’s adventure novel for kids, first published in 1959 as The Children, and later retitled Walkabout.

A key difference between the novel and the film is how the children (Americans in the book) find themselves alone in the outback. In the book, Peter and Mary are in a plane crash, whereas in the film (where they’re unnamed), they’re driven to the outback by their father who suddenly starts shooting at them, before setting his car on fire and killing himself — a major change, and certainly part of what takes the film away from being suitable for a young audience. (Though “Hansel and Gretel” starts in a similar way, with a father deliberately abandoning his son and daughter in the woods to starve.)

That infanticidal/suicidal beginning always makes me think of the 60s counterculture’s idea that you should never trust anyone over thirty; also its feeling that modern life was a stifling, dehumanising treadmill that could only end in this sort of psychotic breakdown. Walkabout is very much a film that belongs to the immediate aftermath of the 60s, being at once a product of it and a commentary on it. (As was Roeg’s co-directorial debut, Performance, but I’d also group it with Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée, a.k.a. Obscured By Clouds, which, like Walkabout, features a small group of drop-outs from the West seeking a deeper connection to life through exposure to a tribal culture.)

“It has often been said that one of the characteristics of the modern world,” wrote Mircea Eliade in his 1958 book on the subject, “is the disappearance of any meaningful rites of initiation.” Walkabout is about the rites of passage children undergo to become adults. The Aborigine who helps the schoolgirl and her brother is in the midst of his own initiatory trial, as explained by a title card at the start of the film:

“In Australia, when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the WALKABOUT.”

We first see Jenny Agutter’s character engaged in the West’s equivalent, school. She and the rest of her class, sitting in neatly ordered production-line rows, are practising their speech lessons, which seem remarkably like a sort of primitive rhythmic chant. Later, she tunes to a radio programme instructing her on her tribe’s complex eating rituals: which knife and fork to use when eating fish, and how to cover up if you inadvertently pick up the wrong ones.

By this time, we’ve already glimpsed her father sitting alone in the concrete desert between office blocks, and her mother at home preparing dinner, listening to a radio programme describing how a bird called the ortolan is kept in a box, force-fed grain, and drowned in cognac as a delicacy for gourmets. (In contrast to which, we later see the Aborigine youth hunt, kill, prepare and cook animals, as well as use, for instance, the fat of one of them to soothe the young boy’s sunburn.)

The father (played by John Meillon, who’d later play Crocodile Dundee’s duffer of a business partner, Wally, which makes it even worse that he’s about to start shooting at his children) drives his kids into the desert and, while the boy plays and the girl sets out picnic dishes, reads a report on Structural Geology, as though, even in the midst of the splendour of the outback, he can only relate to his environment as a tabulated business proposal. Spiritually, he’s running on empty, and the car’s almost out of petrol, too. The schoolgirl gives him a slightly worried look, as though she’s half expecting something to happen. Even when he starts shooting, she doesn’t seem entirely surprised — nor too traumatised after it’s happened. (I have to say that one of the things that makes the film slightly difficult, for me, is how she generally doesn’t show much emotion throughout, considering the peril and trauma she goes through. Perhaps it goes to prove how thoroughly initiated she already is in her own stiff-upper-lip culture.)

But even the father’s insane actions have a place in the children’s rites of passage. As Mircea Eliade says, in Rites and Symbols of Initiation:

“Now, suddenly, they are torn from their blissful childhood unconsciousness, and are told that they are to die, that they will be killed by the divinity. The very act of separation from their mothers fills them with forebodings of death—for they are seized by unknown, often masked men, [and] carried far from their familiar surroundings…”

“The universe that the novices now enter is that of the sacred world,” Eliade goes on to say, and the world the schoolgirl and her brother find themselves in is weird and alive, beautiful and deadly, as though supernaturally charged. It’s teeming with life: flies, ants, grubs, locusts, lizards, snakes, birds, kangaroos, camels, and even one desert-venturing wombat.

It’s harsh, too. A few days into their adventure, dehydrated and exhausted, the children find a waterhole, and immediately use up the precious water not just in drinking but in pointlessly washing themselves and their clothes. The next day, they wake to find the water all gone.

It’s at this point the Aborigine youth turns up, throwing spears at a lizard. (Later, while this young man makes more spears, the schoolboy boasts that he can multiply 84 by 84, his nearest equivalent skill.) The schoolgirl asks him, rather embarrassingly, “Where do they keep the water?”, as though this were a park with facilities, not a wilderness. And all she can do is ask — it’s up to her young brother, not yet entirely educated out of touch, to get the message through by acting it.

Whenever I watch Walkabout I expect it to be about two Western children gaining a deeper connection to the primal forces of life through sharing in an outback rite of passage, but that’s not what actually happens. The schoolgirl seems quite happy not to learn any of the skills she needs to survive in the outback, and clearly expects to be taken back to Western civilisation by the straightest route possible.

What of the Aborigine youth? At one point, walking atop a ridge, he passes right by a white woman, making no attempt to let the schoolgirl know she’s just yards away from her own folk. Instead, he takes her and her brother to an abandoned house. The girl, after her initial disappointment that there’s no one there to take her and her brother back to their own civilisation, immediately starts turning it into a home. She and the youth move about inside it, avoiding eye contact, suddenly distant in this confined space. At the slightest hint of her own world, she’s back to being a Western would-be housewife, and the youth seems a bit nonplussed.

My interpretation of their parting is different from others I’ve read. The Wikipedia article on Walkabout, for instance, says that the Aborigine starts to perform a mating ritual to try to win the schoolgirl over, but my reaction (and this isn’t based on any knowledge whatsoever) was that it wasn’t a mating ritual but a farewell. Just beforehand, the youth goes hunting and sees some white men shooting their prey with rifles. Disgusted, he wanders off — ignoring the schoolgirl when he passes her — to lie among some animal bones. It’s as though he’s trying to come to terms with the idea that white men belong to a different, more savage and strange society, and the schoolgirl is one of them, so he’ll have to leave her. Returning to the house, daubed in white to make himself look like a skeleton, he starts a rather spooky dance which, to me, doesn’t have as much a suggestion of a mating ritual about it, as it does a sort of exorcism. Seeing the film for the first time, I assumed this meant he was saying goodbye to her — ‘dying’ to her metaphorically, while perhaps also trying to scare her from the house, to move her on her way. His jerky stares seem more alienating than inviting. Which isn’t to say his dance doesn’t have a sexual element, but that element may be to add to its magical potency.

When the schoolgirl and her brother find him the next day, suspended from the branches of a tree, I assumed he wasn’t literally dead, but was ‘dead to them’, and was going to stay like that till they left. But the general interpretation seems to be that he is actually dead, and that he died by — what? — dancing himself to exhaustion? Then hanging himself up in the tree?

Is he dead? His body’s in the same position as the father’s corpse was earlier in the film, arms outstretched amidst the limbs of a tree. But neither the schoolgirl nor her brother seem very shocked to see the youth like this. (Though this may be yet more ingrained impassivity from the schoolgirl.) They don’t bury him. The girl just brushes some ants from his body. Neither, though, do they tell him to snap out of it. (I’m sure his face twitches as they walk away, though.) Maybe I just don’t want him to be dead. (In the novel, after all, he catches flu from the children and, having no immunity, dies.)

Really dead or not, though, it’s the end of the trio’s time together. The schoolgirl and her brother walk to a nearby road, and head back to their own world. At the end of the film, we see the girl, now grown up (wearing make-up and smoking a cigarette), in exactly the same situation as her mother was in at the start of the film — a housewife in an apartment, preparing a meal for her husband, who comes home and tells her he’s up for a promotion. For a moment, it’s as though nothing has changed. And if the girl is in the same situation as her mother, does that mean her husband will one day take their children out to the desert and shoot them, too? But then we have a glimpse inside her head. Part of her is still in the outback, with her young brother and the Aborigine youth, swimming in a pool. Perhaps something in her was affected by her time in the outback, after all…

It seems to me Walkabout is doing its best to conjure some hope from the end of the 60s counterculture’s attempt at a revolution. It’s the 70s now, and the hippies and drop-outs have had to grow up and get jobs, and they’ve found that the only way to do that is to fit in with the existing system, become one with the never-to-be-trusted over-thirties. But, like Jenny Agutter’s character, who has a piece of her outback experience permanently (if deeply) lodged inside her, those hippies and drop-outs at least glimpsed an alternative, and even if they’re not living the  revolutionary dream, at least something inside of them isn’t given wholly over to the Capitalist treadmill. Their revolution didn’t succeed, but it wasn’t entirely defeated, either.

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterOne of the things that makes the original Alien so effective is how lean and sleek it is, plot-wise — what you might call its structural perfection. You can’t help but admire its purity. It’s a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…

The original film’s one allusion to a backstory or mythology, the Space Jockey scene, is so brief yet mind-blowing that all it does is hint at what a vast, scary, and utterly unknowable Lovecraftian universe there is behind the xenomorph’s existence. It’s as if, with the Space Jockey scene, the film is saying, “All this stuff with one killer alien is merely scratching the surface of the horrors that are out there.”

Aliens knew what it was doing when it left any question of mythology alone. Like a need-to-know-only military briefing, it stuck to the xenomorph, and the xenomorph only. Anything beyond that was unnecessary to its story. Prometheus changed all that, but Prometheus was trying to be a different sort of film altogether, only tangentially related to the Alien franchise. That wasn’t what audiences wanted, though, so now, instead of a Prometheus sequel, we have Alien: Covenant, a DNA-fused hybrid that promises a return to the Alien franchise proper, but that also wants to keep things going on the Prometheus front. We know the xenomorph is endlessly adaptable, but I can’t help thinking of that pathetic human/xenomorph thing at the end of Alien: Resurrection, that seemed, to me, more unintentionally comic than evolutionarily impressive.

(And why ‘Covenant’? Aside from it being the name of the ship carrying human colonists to the distant planet Origae-6, there doesn’t seem to be any actual covenant involved.)

Alien: Covenant posterI enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but only in a so-so way. I think the trouble with it is that, by this time, the series has picked up so many story elements it feels the need to give the nod to, none of them can get the attention they deserve. There’s the xenomorphs; there’s the Engineers; there’s the synthetics; there’s David (from Prometheus) in particular; there’s the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; there’s its ageing founder… And somewhere amongst all that, there’s the new characters who must be introduced in each film, if only to give them some sort of story before they’re infected, impregnated, punctured, dissolved, burned, torn apart, experimented on, or whatever other gruesome fate awaits them. In a need to be both a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant spends all its narrative energy running around ticking boxes, doing its best to add its own particular twists (yet more variations on the xenomorph and its ever-mutating gestation cycle, yet more new ways for characters to die), trying to at least hint it’s going to connect with the original film in a meaningful way, while all the time trying to provide some justification for its existence as a film in its own right.

All the scenes that made Alien and Aliens so great get stuffed into Alien: Covenant and hastily run through, but with none of the necessary build-up in character and tension that made them work in the first place. Who is that getting torn apart by the latest variety of xenomorph (a pale, fleshy creature more than a little resembling Pan’s Labyrinth’s eyeless Pale Man)? I don’t know. Which means I don’t care.

Michael Fassbender as David in PrometheusWhere Alien: Covenant does get to create some sort of unique identity as a film, it actually starts to work. The one thing it’s got going for it is the fact that it has two superficially identical synthetics, David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender (who is, I suppose, the prequel series’s Ripley, though an anti-Ripley). This is a new situation for the Alien films, and Alien: Covenant manages to do something with it. The trouble is, it only gets round to doing it in the last few minutes, once the film has finished dealing with all the other Alien/Aliens/Prometheus stuff it feels so contracted to deal with. (Perhaps that’s the covenant in Alien: Covenant? A contract between Ridley Scott and his audience who, he seems to feel, need, not a sleek, tense, killer of a film, but a series of ticks against an ever-increasing list of must-have scenes, twists, and backstory updates, however shoehorned-in.)

Prometheus left me reeling at how nihilistic it was. Alien: Covenant never gets round to making any sort of equivalent statement. And I think this is the curse of backstory, or mythology, or whatever you call it, generally. Backstory works as backstory, not as the main plot of a movie. That’s why the Star Wars prequels could never be as good as the originals. It’s great to have, in the original Star Wars trilogy, references to what went on before — the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and so on — because those throwaway references gave the story-world a bit more dimension, and uncovering hidden past events and family secrets added some counterpoint to the main action of the plot. When Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father, it was a great, though crude, shock moment. But it certainly wasn’t the justification for three new films. (The Harry Potter books/films did it better, in terms of interweaving discovery of past events with present-time plot advancement.)

Star Wars Rogue One posterI really enjoyed Star Wars: Rogue One, and a good deal of that came from its being so free of the tangles of established backstory — certainly, of the ponderous, melodramatic, Gothic weight of the ‘Saga’ of the (let’s face it, majorly dysfunctional) Skywalker clan. Granted, Rogue One took as its kick-off point a detail from the original story — Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans — but that, and its being set in the recognisable Star Wars universe, was all it took. And all it needed.

Alien: Covenant doesn’t actually add much to the Prometheus mythology, which makes it all the more annoying how weighed down it is by including so much of it. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but what I think the Alien series needs is to jettison this dead weight of trying to build a mythology, and get back to being the sleek, simple but mind-blowing killer beast it used to be, with only the occasional between-the-fingers glimpse of a wider, even more terrifying, cosmic reality behind it all.

English Gothic by Jonathan Rigby

At the end of this exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) film-by-film history of English horror cinema, Jonathan Rigby quotes Anne Billson on the special place Gothic has for the English:

‘Horror thrives best when emotions are bottled up, and no one bottles them up quite like us.’

I’m not sure this is true of all horror. I’d say the US horror films, like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which put an end to the 20th century’s main British horror boom, are more about political than emotional repression — when they’re not simply about pure, primal terror, that is. Certainly, they don’t work in that stiff-upper lip way Hammer’s fairy-tale Gothics do. Perhaps that’s why the term ‘Gothic’ seems so much more appropriate to English horror cinema. (Though Rigby has also written books on European Gothic and American Gothic.)

Although Rigby mentions a welter of early horror films in his first chapter (covering 1897 to 1953), things (as well as Things) really kick off in 1954, with Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment, which made a marketing virtue of its ‘X’ certificate (brought in by the BBFC in 1951, to exclude under-16s). That film’s success led to the ‘First Flood’ of British horror (as Rigby titles the chapter), most of which were science fiction horrors, or the sort of costume-drama Gothics that Hammer were to make so much their own.

Right from the start, British critics and censors did their best to act as the repressing super-ego to these horror films’ blasts of unleashed id, complaining of a surging tide of boundaries-testing ‘sex and sadism’ (that nowadays seems merely quaint), which lead to a slow choking-off of this initial horror boom in the first half of the 1960s, when horror filmmaking in Britain seems to have been dominated by costume Gothics (not just Hammer, but Roger Corman’s Poe films, too), alongside some respectable one-offs like The Innocents, The Haunting, and Repulsion. (Michael Powell, with his 1960 film Peeping Tom, became the sacrificial lamb to the repressive critics’ slaughter.) With the social changes of the 1960s, that critical repression flipped into outright prurience by the early 1970s, when a glut of US investment led to the films Rigby covers in a chapter called ‘Market Saturation’. After Hammer finally went to the Devil (literally — their last film being 1975’s To the Devil a Daughter), Rigby lumps the rest of the 20th century into a single chapter titled ‘British Horror in Retreat’.

Jonathan Rigby

That’s where the first edition of English Gothic ended. In this new (2015) edition, there’s a new chapter, ‘Risen from the Grave: 2000–2015’, covering the period which contains, among other things, Hammer’s own resurrection, its most characteristic film being (again) in period costume (The Lady in Black).

Perhaps it’s notable that Hammer had their success at the same time as the Carry On films. Both relied for their character on British prudishness, and both failed to adapt to the changing mores of the latter half of the 1960s (trying and failing in, for instance, Carry on Loving on the one hand and Dracula 1972 A.D. on the other), finally giving way to pulpier home-grown product which was far less repressed, and less finessed (Prey, Frightmare) — which themselves failed in the face of the fully explicit, overseas-made films of the video-driven 1980s.

I wonder if perhaps the horror genre will always have two opposing strands to it: the shocking, gory, explicitly violent side and the more dreamy, surreal, Gothic side. As people get tired of the excesses — or used to the shocks — of one (too much blood, or too little), the other has a breakout success. Hence, for instance, the boom of ghostly and surreal Asian horror films at the turn of the millennium, which then gave way to the excessively physical terrors of the Saw franchise five years later.

Some of my favourite British horror films have their feet in both camps — Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, or Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, for instance — but I much prefer the dreamy, supernatural, Gothic side: chills rather than shocks, and spooks rather than psychopaths.