Summer of Horror: The Birds, An American Werewolf in London, The Legend of Hell House

The Birds (1963)

Birds

Funny thing about decades: we always want to neatly divide them up and identify them by a particular set of traits like the fashion, technology, slang, and social attitudes. But in practice what we picture when we think of a particular decade doesn’t usually line up with the actual years. “The 80’s” in our minds, is really what the world looked like from about 1984 to 1992. “The 90’s” is more like 1993 to 2001. The judging by The Birds, the 50’s was still alive and well in 1963. 

Look at Rod Taylor’s wool suit and tie and 45 year old leading man face (on a 33 year old body). Listen to Tippi Hedren’s breathy voice that sounds exactly like an old lady’s when you close your eyes, even though she’s clearly young. And of course, exposition is delivered via static living room shots and conversations. It would feel just as 50’s as Invasion of the Body Snatchers if it weren’t for the color photography.

I have not seen very many Hitchcock movies. So, I can’t say whether this is a “thing” with Hitchcock, but The Birds and Psycho both start out similarly, with a a plot seemingly designed to mislead the audience, having nothing to do with the eventual thrust of the movie and being dropped as soon as the true menace is introduced. In this case there’s a really weird courtship between Hedren and Taylor where he’s sort of threatening to have her arrested for some act of petty vandalism (imagine your pearl-wearing grandma throwing a brick through a window), but she’s still into him enough to stalk him to another town…. I don’t know. I was having trouble paying attention to that part.

We all know what’s coming – bird-related panic! The red herring plot (no pun intended) seems to me like it was only there to pad out the run time and allow Hitchcock to build his trademark suspense. And the suspense DOES build very gradually, with more and more shots of suspicious bird activity leading to the eventual “all hell breaks loose” third act you probably are familiar with, even if you’ve never seen the whole movie.

But there is a shot, a famous shot, that occurs just before the third act that, for a movie made in the early 60’s is beyond shocking. It’s shocking today. And I wanted so badly to post it here, but honestly if you are ever planning to watch The Birds you don’t want the surprise spoiled for you. But I also don’t want to overhype it, so I’ll just stop here.

Remarkably, the special effects still hold up pretty well. The bird swarms attacking the lead actors seemed to have been made with a combination of puppets and real birds blue/green screened over. It does look a little “green-screened” from time to time, but I’ve seen way more obvious green screen in far newer movies.

The ending is really creative and unexpected, and has been parodied by the Simpsons, which is how I knew what to expect. It’s more modern than what I’ve come to expect from most “50’s” movies, as it never attempts a clumsy explanation of why the birds have suddenly gone violent, or even how mankind is going to deal with the problem. It simply happens. Some people die, some people live, and the survivors drive off into the distance. There are few things more chilling than that.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An_American_Werewolf_in_London_poster

The transformation scene is the cornerstone of every werewolf movie, starting with the 1941 Universal Wolfman movie, and An American Werewolf in London has the most famous one of them all. That right there is just about all I knew about the movie going in.

Directed by John Landis of Animal House fame, American Werewolf is, I guess, a horror comedy. The tone is certainly less than serious – a lot of that having to do with the soundtrack, which simply pulled every pop song with the word “moon” in the title. To be honest, it’s pretty jarring to hear 60’s pop and doo wop songs (or Credence Clearwater Revival) hit you in the front of the mix during what should be a spooky, atmospheric scene. But besides the incongruous soundtrack, I can’t think of much else about this movie that was outright “comedy”. Some of the gory scenes were pretty over the top and campy, and there are a few really out-there dream sequences. Oh, and the rapidly decaying corpse of the main character’s murdered friend, who tags along trying to convince him to commit suicide for the safety of others.

Apart from that, this is a pretty typical werewolf movie. It’s always a “man vs. himself” type of conflict, as the main character tries to repress the beast within (much like the Hulk). When you finally do see the main character in all his wolfy glory (the film wisely saves the full reveal for the end), it’s pretty… awkward. The face of the wolf is spectacular 80’s cheese, all fangs and drool and yellow eyes, but its body is ridiculously top heavy, shaped like giant balloon tipped on its side, with no neck. There are only fleeting glimpses of it running, and that has to be because it was so hard for whoever was in that costume to move.

Now about that transformation scene. If you follow horror in any way you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with it. It is long, excruciating, and visceral. They pulled out practically every trick in the special effects book available in those days – makeup, prosthetics, stop motion, and animatronics. I can almost say the whole movie is worth watching just for that iconic scene.

A couple lingering questions: 1) At the end of the movie, the main character transforms into a werewolf at least two (possibly three) nights in a row. Is it one of those things where if the moon appears to be full, as it does the day before and after a real full moon, you transform? Could be an interesting thing to address in a modern werewolf movie. 2) The soundtrack has the audacity to include three versions of the song Blue Moon, along with other moon-referencing pop songs, but they couldn’t get Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London? Was it just too on the nose? I guess I actually assumed that song originated from this movie. Not so.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Hell House

An eccentric millionaire invites a small group of people to a legendary “haunted” house under dubious pretenses. Among the characters are a skeptic, a coward, and someone who claims to have psychic abilities. As the night goes on the paranormal influences of the house manifest and affect the characters in different ways.

Does this sound oddly familiar to anyone?

I always got the movies The Haunting and House on Haunted Hill mixed up in my mind because of the similarities in title and premise. To make matters more confusing, both films were remade in the same year, 1999. To make matters even more confusing, House on Haunted Hill is based on a novel called The Haunting of Hill House. Still with me so far?

For some reason, it wasn’t until this year that I even became aware of a third movie in this set of confusing similarities. It’s remarkable that I’ve never read anything pointing out the bizarre coincidence that makes up this unofficial trilogy of haunted house stories. The Legend of Hell House is based on a novel by Richard Matheson of I Am Legend fame and is the most recent of the three aforementioned ghost stories.

Haunted house movies are my favorite horror subgenre. For whatever reason they just “work” for me. And Hell House hits many of the important marks. Atmosphere is established very early on in a pleasingly classical way. The house – more of a castle or a mansion – is first seen shrouded in fog at dusk, the silhouettes of stone spires vanishing into the darkening sky. A black cat is even seen prowling the wall at one point (foreshadowing a fairly ridiculous scene later on).

Our group of characters is kept to a manageable four: A physicist, his wife, a medium, and the sole survivor of an earlier investigation into the hauntings, who is also a medium, but a different kind of medium, I guess? I don’t know a whole lot about mediums. All are hired to try to gather physical evidence and proof of life after death, and Belascoe House (known as Hell House) is considered “the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses”. Nice hook. The physicist plays the role of the skeptic, even though he’s the de facto leader of the investigation and doesn’t seem the least bit phased when the female medium channels an actual spirit and speaks in a man’s voice, on the first night in the house no less.

You never actually SEE a ghost, but events occur and escalate very quickly for a movie made in 1973. When a second attempt to contact the spirits of the house is performed under lab conditions, the tension builds remarkably well. Much is accomplished with the use of ambient noise, jarring sound effects, and old school “shape under the sheets” tricks. You feel the presence of ghosts without ever needing to see them.

According to the film’s original poster (and the Netflix database), it’s rated PG. I find that rather curious as the movie contains a fair amount of blood and violence as well as some pretty obvious (but silhouetted) nudity. That’s to say nothing of the sexual overtones that manifest in the hauntings. I would attribute that rating to the fact that this is a British film released in America before the PG-13 rating existed. Still, I’m surprised it wasn’t rated R back then.

As always, it’s unknown how long The Legend of Hell House will be available to stream on Netflix. If you’re the type of person who would be inclined to lower the lights, crack open a pumpkin beer, and watch a good old fashioned haunted house movie in the middle of August, as I did, I recommend you do just that. If it’s still on Netflix in September or October, all the better.

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