Damnation and Doom at the Plantation of the Dead.
Dead Birds is directed by Alex Turner and written by Simon Barrett. It stars Henry Thomas, Nicki Aycox, Isaiah Washington, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, Mark Boone Junior, Harris Mann and Muse Watson. Music is scored by Peter Lopez and cinematography by Steve Yedlin.
1863 and it's the back end of the American Civil War, a group of Confederate deserters rob their own army's gold being delivered to the bank of Fairhope. Leaving a bloody trail in their wake, the group set off for Mexico but must stop for rest and recuperation at a deserted farm mansion over looking a long dead plantation. With a storm moving in and tempers among the thieves running high, it soon becomes evident that something otherworldly resides at the house and the surrounding area…
Dead Birds is a little cracker, a straight to video horror film that to my mind puts to shame some of the big budgeted piles of crap that get released to the multiplexes on a seemingly weekly basis. Of course, horror is very subjective, where along with comedy it forms a pair of genres guaranteed to produce films that will never ever please everyone. Falling into the haunted house sub-genre of horror, Dead Birds, in spite of its unique Civil War period setting, has been lambasted by many a horror fan for not being fresh, that it's a collage of other horror movies. There's some truth to that, but we could level that charge at 98% of horror movies anyway! But Dead Birds (crap title btw) does have a cult fan base, a fan base I'm very much proud to be part of.
Alex Turner, for his first feature length debut, has crafted a haunted house picture that positively pulses with dread, with its slow deliberate pacing and hushed conversational tones, the atmosphere crackles with unease. The opening credits are jet black and rise from the earth like spectral portents of death. Then after the fireworks of the robbery, things settle into a sort of ethereal rhythm. The gang make their way to their doom through a murky landscape until they reach what they don't know is their final destination; the plantation, a place that just reeks of death and disharmony.
The cornfield is long dead and home to a strange creature, the battered old scarecrow looks ripe for a fright and a dead bird on the floor is ominous. The house itself is a two story wooden type not used often in tales of this type. It looks moody, as does the servants quarters, there's also a creepy barn with its hayloft and a water well of course. These are genre staples for sure, but Turner gathers all the clichés and gives them a new lease of life in a new period setting. The secret is in the lighting, Turner and Yedlin (Brick/Looper) light from down low, giving off a wonderful eerie effect as the gang trudge around this place of misery. It may sound like an oxy-moronic statement, but this is one beautifully shot horror film.
Then there's the shocks, the boo-jump moments (sadly revealed in the trailer for those unfortunate to not see the film first), these are not frequent so as to make the film reliant on them, they are used sparingly and only to advance the plot as the plantation's history literally comes to life. The cast are on fine form (Thomas and Washington standing out), working well with a dynamic infused with greed, mistrust, jealousy and racism. Lopez's musical score blends foreboding rumbles with spine chilling shards of noise, while Turner slots in some oblique angles to further enhance the feeling of hopeless disorientation. It may cover familiar ground, that of a bunch of folk in a spooky house being bumped off one by one, with suspicions aroused, but Dead Birds is very much its own animal. Hee, literally. 8/10
Dead Birds-Worth a Look, But Not Much More?
Great atmosphere, good acting, decent ending twist, so-so plot. Worth a rent but not much more. Not too confusing if you pay attention and like horror movies anyway. I also thought it would be more scary, but the kids were creepy. The hollowed-out eye-sockets were what got me. The score also set a great sense of dread and foreboding. I suppose for a first time director it wasn't absolutely awful. But as I said before, strong performances(especially Isiah Washington and Patrick Fugit), the location(great Southern period "feel"), a very creepy score, and the little twist at the end are what saves this movie from being very mediocre to just plain bad.