Directors and stars of horror films may come and go with the changing fashions in horror but Alfred Hitchcock’s work never loses its entertainment value. The thrill of sitting down to watch a Hitchcock film may be compared to the thrill of anticipation before attending a big tournament. Both promise tingling spines and an exciting experience.
But what is so chilling about Hitchcock’s movies that he still manages to thrill modern, sophisticated audiences? The clothes and settings of his films are different to today’s, sea monsters and zombies do not feature in his work, nor does the gore and violence associated with many modern horror films. Yet the essential still remains; the ability to send a shiver down the spine and to create a sense of anticipation when the music begins to play.
It is perhaps his ability to go back to the everyday and the ordinary and to find the horror that can lie within apparently normal situations that has the power to shock us. A flock of birds assembling shock the residents in “The Birds,” his adaptation of Daphne De Maurier’s “Rebecca” still provides late night chilling viewing. Who cannot fail to feel their spine tingling when watching “Vertigo” or the threatening behaviour of the smugglers in “Jamaica Inn”? And yet the settings are every day, a roadside tavern in “Jamaica Inn”, an elegant house and civilized society in “Rebecca”, middle class suburbia in “Vertigo”. It is perhaps this juxtaposition of the ordinary with the chilling that most captivates the viewer. Terrifying events are expected to happen in unusual, out of the way settings. When they happen in familiar locations does it perhaps remind us that they could happen in our neighbourhood, even in our homes?
Hitchcock is the master of the psychological thriller, tapping into our psyches to discover our innermost fears and using his talent to play on them. Rarely if ever does his cinematography rely on gore, preferring instead to toy with our imagination through a domineering set of protagonists, be they aggressive and unpredictable winged creatures in The Birds (1963) or the prowling, charismatic cat burglar of To Catch a Thief (1955) who sets about intimidating just about everyone he meets in rather ingenious ways. Human nature is his common denominator, the terror lies in his portrayal of ordinary people who may be hiding a sinister secret or some malicious intent. What can be more frightening than discovering that people are hiding their true natures under a display of camaraderie and friendship?
Danvers in “Rebecca” springs to mind with her apparent kindness to the new bride when she in reality is trying to keep the memory of her late employer Rebecca alive and thwart the happiness of Maxim De Winter’s new wife. Likewise the story of Rebecca herself and the life she lived behind the adorable image she created, shocks us and even more so when her body is discovered. Similar deception can be seen in “Vertigo” where Judy is discovered to have been disguising herself as Madeleine and to have been involved in a murder plot. It is this factor of what lies beneath a character’s surface appearance that truly shocks us.
By creating suspense Hitchcock ensures that we watch his films to the end. A film may begin quietly, seemingly innocently but long screen shots, lurking shadows or a discordant note of music warn us that there is more to come. The innocent purchase of two lovebirds as part of a girlish prank leads to attacks, first by a seagull and then by flocks of birds, in “The Birds”. Scottie’s discussion of his fear of heights with his friend leads him into a relationship with the elegant Madeleine culminating in his fear of heights being conquered, but in the woman he truly loves dying. In “Rebecca” Maxim De Winter marries his young new wife while on holiday, rescuing her from a life of working as a companion and bringing her to Manderlay where the presence of his late wife Rebecca lingers over everything, casting a shadow over the new Mrs. De Winter’s life.
As his films begin there are hints that all is not well. Things are left unsaid, shadowy figures lurk, a window is unexpectedly left open, a long camera angle gives a sense of unease and as the music rolls, the viewer settles down to watch, knowing that Hitchcock will not disappoint.