In the arena of horror films, it’s not often you get a period piece, mostly because they’re expensive to make, and it’s a little hard to convince contemporary horror moviegoers (the vast majority of whom are teens) to be scared when people are riding around on horses or going to the bathroom in outhouses. Such is life in the Wild Wild West. Or actually in 1863, the year in which Alex Turner’s “Dead Birds” is set. The film stars Henry Thomas (“Suicide Kings”) as William, an ex-Confederate soldier who, as the film opens, comes into some gold via the bloody robbery of a bank.
Along with partner-in-crime and razor toting girlfriend Annabelle (Nicki Lynn Aycox, “Jeepers Creepers 2”), a nurse who William met when he was injured in the Civil War, the gang hightails it to an abandoned plantation out in the middle of nowhere. The ultimate goal is to reach Mexico where the gang plans to live the good life. Or at least a richer life. Besides Annabelle, other members of William’s gang includes Todd (Isaiah Washington, “Romeo Must Die”), a black man, William’s fast draw little brother Sam (Patrick Fugit), and untrustworthy sloths Clyde (Michael Shannon) and Joseph (Mark Boone Junior).
Resting for the night at the plantation, the location of which was told to William by a Confederate soldier during the war, the bank robbers encounter strange and supernatural events. The voices of invisible children and ghostly visions haunt them, which makes the already tenuous situation worst because the thieves are already suspicious of each other, with Clyde and Joseph already plotting to cut the six-way split into two. As it turns out, the plantation was once owned by a madman who, desperate to save his ill wife, skinned his slaves, did something unfathomable to his children, and raised more than just the dead with black magic…
As independent horror films go, “Dead Birds” is less clever than it is effective. There’s nothing overly original about the premise (despite the trappings of the 1800s setting) or the way the characters go about dying one by one. Nevertheless, Alex Turner’s fluid direction more than makes up for the lack of originality, making “Dead Birds” one of the more unsettling and atmospheric films I’ve seen in a long while. There’s a feeling of dread that immediately seizes the film once the bank robbers reach the plantation, and this feeling continues throughout, sometimes as undercurrents running underneath the normal scenes, and other times coming right at the audience.
Most of the story takes place over the period of one night, as the gang tries to survive their many creepy encounters with the plantation’s undead residents. For a movie about people being skinned alive and getting their eyes and mouths sewn shut, there is surprisingly very little actual gore on display. Oh sure, there are plenty of scenes of people in the throes of agony after being skinned, but something about the film’s demonic creatures undermines the movie’s potentially gory moments. When you throw demons from Hell into the plot, the fact that people are getting skinned just doesn’t seem quite as horrific anymore. After all, what do you expect when demons are involved? The “Hellraiser” franchise already taught us that demons always equal skinning.
Despite being an independent film with a modest budget, “Dead Birds” looks very good, helped in no small part by the film’s mostly nighttime scenes. To be sure, cornfields always look creepy when shot in the right way, and at night they look downright terrifying. The other helpful factor is a good cast led by Henry Thomas, who actually doesn’t get all that much to do. At 90 minutes, the film spreads out its main six cast members too thin, with Isaiah Washington and Patrick Fugit making the most of their time onscreen. Washington in particular has the most to do, although curiously the fact that he’s black in 1863, and part of a murderous gang composed mainly of Southerners, the color of his skin really doesn’t figure very prominently into the storyline. Or at least it figures less prominently than I had expected.
If there is one major problem with “Dead Birds”, it’s the lack of sympathetic characters. Which doesn’t mean no one in “Dead Birds” is likeable, just that it’s hard to feel empathy for people you’d rather see hanging from the wrong end of a noose because they are little more than a blot on humanity’s resume. To this end, the major mistake is the bank robbery at the beginning, which is unnecessarily brutal, ending with William and the gang riding out of town with enough blood on their hands to last a couple of lifetimes. Established as cold-blooded killers from the word “go”, watching the gang be stalked and killed later on loses a lot of its potential impact. The thing is, you’d rather see these people be killed here than have them out there in the world causing more death and mayhem.
Also, the Third Act is much too rushed. The script by Simon Barrett fills the viewer in on the evil deeds of the plantation’s past owner by what seems to be possession of one of the robbers. I say “seems” because the how’s and why’s of “Dead Birds'” supernatural elements are more than a little hazy, and sometimes you have no idea what’s going on at all. There is also a very important subplot about how William came to know the location of the plantation that is mentioned almost in passing during a tense moment. What should have been a major plot twist instead rushes by so fast that it will no doubt go unnoticed by a majority of the audience.
Despite a rushed ending and some less than clear ideas about its own supernatural elements, “Dead Birds” is still a very worthwhile horror film, if just because it is miles better than what’s currently out there at the moment (which, sadly, says more about the genre than anything). Alex Turner has directed a very effective tale that is most frightening when we don’t actually see the persons responsible for the frights. The presence of demons lessens the film’s impact a bit, as it injects generic supernatural themes when the inherent evilness of humanity would have been much more effective. Nevertheless, “Dead Birds” comes highly recommended, especially for those seeking a horror film that can actually scare, and isn’t populated by rejects from the WB network.
Alex Turner (director) / Simon Barrett (screenplay)
CAST: Henry Thomas …. William
Nicki Lynn Aycox …. Annabelle
Isaiah Washington …. Todd
Michael Shannon …. Clyde
Patrick Fugit …. Sam