Horror is a sticky wicket. It is difficult to think of another genre of film where the bad overwhelmingly outweighs the good. On the rare occasion when a well-made horror film does come to be, it is ravaged, imitated and sequal-ized until the impact of the original has been neutered. How many monsters stomped around graveyards after Frankenstein? How many Poe adaptations did Vincent Price star in after The Fall of The House of Usher? How many maniacs hacked teenage girls after Halloween? And, the paramount rhetorical question for this essay, how many towns had killer infestations after Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds?
The Birds: A socialite with “a reputation” travels to a sleepy maritime/agrarian town (Bodega Bay) to woo a manly lawyer. Soon after arriving, all the birds in the area go insane and start attacking everybody. Then they stop. Technically, it’s a well-noted achievement; Hitchcock uses a score consisting entirely of diegetic sound, he visualized the bird attacks near-seamlessly with puppets, Xerox photography and rear projection. Without question, there are sequences that are a model of tension building, most notably the bird’s attack on the school. It is a classic. It is cannon Hitchcock. It is also a film that people don’t really like.
That is harsh, there are exceptions to the rule— but even those who sing its praises tend to do so in a backhanded way; “Oh, The Birds is so good it makes up for the fact that the leads are terrible and have no chemistry.” “It’s so good, you forget about the anti-climactic ending”. These are not criticisms that get labeled against North by Northwest, Vertigo or any of the other dozen or so Hitchcock movies that are “must sees”. So why does this classic leave so many fans of Golden Age Hollywood flat? Besides casting issues, this film is too sophisticated by half.
Horror has rules: A vampire attacks at night, a man becomes a wolf under a full moon, if you are a camp counselor, then you will be chopped up with an ax by mentally disabled, vengeance seeking, death elemental. The genre needs some sort of internal logic to function, as it is preposterous when real-world common sense is applied. At the risk of bursting bubbles, the supernatural does not exist. This is why ghost-proving television make up programming blocks on second-tier basic cable networks, but entirely absent on the evening news. A horror movie needs exposition to explain the world to the audience. Hitchcock decided this was unnecessary. Fortunately, Hitchcock was a genius who could work around little details like having a movie make sense.
With The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock showed that our grip as the dominant species is tenuous, and with every bird attack, he strengthened that thesis. However, The Birds willfully ignores the “why” of the film. Why do the bird attack? Do they hate the middling acting abilities of Tippi Hendren, or the barely feasible reason as to why she drives up to Bodega Bay? Have the birds a problem with picturesque seaside towns? Why do the birds stop attacking? Are they tired? Do they just give up? Did they decide it wasn’t worth it? Without offering even the most flippant explanations as to the motivation of the birds, the film removes the chance for any sort of narrative satisfaction.
John Carpenter’s career hit its early zenith with Halloween, a slasher film made possible by the success of Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho. Psycho is the foundation, and Halloween is the first story of the skyscraper that is the slasher flick. Whereas Hitchcock took the idea of a monster and made him human (and profoundly psychologically damaged), Carpenter took the psychologically damaged Michael Myers and made him a monster. Similarly, as Hitchcock took the sci-fi horror of The Birds and ignored any internal logic of an alien infestation, Carpenter took Hitchcock’s formula and embedded it within the framework of a gothic horror film.
The Birds sleepy town of Bodega Bay is replaced with The Fog’s Antonio Bay, a Northern California fishing village on the cusp of its centennial celebration. The festivities are interrupted by a mysterious fog that sweeps through the town, bringing with it zombie sailors that will claim the lives of six Antonio Bay residents. Reaching their goal, the fog (and its undead sailors) rolls out as menacingly as it rolls in.
The simple summary makes The Fog sound as addle-brained as any run of the mill horror film could, putting it in the league of Tarantula or The Werewolves Are Coming- The Rats Are Here! There is no shortage of lazy drive-in filler that point out mankind’s helplessness in the face of overwhelming odds of nature’s creepy crawlies. But Carpenter ignores Hitchcock’s tenet of The Birds— that explanation equals crudeness— and immerses the film with something quaint: rules.
The Fog opens with the hoariest of horror conventions: A ghost story. The story, told by John Houseman, is about a ship of lepers (The Elisabeth Dane) that was forced to crash into the rocks of Antonio Bay due to a (purposely) misplaced beacon. It is delivered with the gravitas that only Houseman could sell. The ghost story makes the film’s premise clear: The crew of the Dane will return to find the beacon. Soon after, the town priest (Hal Holbrook) finds his grandfather’s journal, explaining that (a) the building of Antonio Bay was financed by plundering the wreckage of the Elisabeth Dane and that (b) zombie sailors will attack between midnight and one AM. A third piece of horror tomfoolery gives the audience the final “rule” of the film, the fog will claim six lives.
All of these tropes are unquestionably silly, but they serve a significant function- they explain what is going on. The rules do not take away from the terror of the townsfolk, nor do they offer much in the way of a counter-strategy, but they do relay to the audience what is happening and why. Carpenter is not a hack: Antonio Bay (budgetary limitations aside) is fully realized, and the fog attacks a cross-section of its residents: A fishing captain, a priest, a town matriarch, a hitchhiker and a DJ are all in equal peril, connected in by small town life. Despite Hitchcock’s sophistication, The Birds focuses on a couple and their extended family. There is one scene where we are introduced to Bodega Bay’s larger township, but that scene is designed to build suspense for a massive bird attack.
History has labeled The Birds a classic and The Fog a cult film. Alfred Hitchcock is an unquestioned genius, while John Carpenter, despite having worked in several genres, is reductively thought of as a guy who made (makes) horror films. Film schools offer surveys for Hitchcock, Carpenter gets analysis in Fangoria. Specific to their films, pages and pages of critical theory has been written to defend The Birds: the clunky writing and awkward relationships could not possibly be due to the fact that the great master cared more about the technical aspects of the film than he did about narrative or character; obviously, they must have a deeper meaning. The Fog gets dismissed as an early effort of John Carpenter; few reviews ignore its technical shortcomings, and the “kindest” reviews are condescending, e.g. the late Roger Ebert: “This isn’t a great movie but it does show great promise from Carpenter”.
History does share something with horror beside beginning with the letter “h: In the case of these films, history has become an equalizer. The Fog was remade in 2005 as a teen horror film, was (justly) critically lambasted, then forgotten. The Birds has been ushered out of the public consciousness, replaced with a film that took The Birds as its inspiration: Birdemic: Shock And Terror, a movie high in the running as worst movie ever made. Bridemic has gotten more media attention for its ineptitude than The Birds has gotten for it mastery of cinema in the last generation. History and horror— both sticky wickets, and both particularly unkind.