#57: Dead Birds
Haunted house horror amidst the Civil War
This review was originally posted to Twitter on February 24th, 2019
Initial release: 2004
Director: Alex Turner
The horror western is an underrated genre. The chaos of the American Civil War, the untamed frontier, or the darkness of the deep South, all are ripe material for a good spooky campfire yarn. So it’s a shame that Dead Birds doesn’t quite come together.
It’s 1863, the height of the Civil War, and a gang of bank robbers in Alabama are seeking shelter in an abandoned plantation house owned by the ringleader’s dead friend. But it’s clear after they’ve been there a few hours that there’s something wrong with the place — for example, the skinless monster that attacked them. A storm rolls in, trapping them in the house for the night. After exploring the house as best they can, they settle in; before long, spooky things start happening, people start disappearing, and group cohesion begins to erode.
This is a movie that lives for the slow burn. Most of the movie is spent on the characters moving with trepidation through the house and grounds as it slowly dawns on them that the house is a hostile environment. The plot moves glacially along with them, revealing very little. There’s atmosphere in spades; the opening scenes are bright and sunny as the gang stages its robbery and makes their escape, but as they near the house, the palette becomes more muted as bad weather rolls in. Most of the film is in blues of darkness and lantern yellows.
Director Alex Turner makes good use of wide shots to drive up the claustrophobia. The cornfield is oppressive and smothering, reminiscent of the tall grass of Onibaba; panning shots follow characters as they look under beds. Near-POV shots place us alongside characters in their terror. The acting is all solid work from mostly-unknowns and sorta-knowns like Isaiah Washington in an early role and Mark Boone Jr. (the guy who played corrupt detective Flass in Batman Begins.) The performances really help elevate the film and fill the gaps in between the interminable exploration scenes.
As you might guess, where the movie falls down is the script. I like a good slow burn more than most, but for so much of the film, almost nothing happens other than some light menacing, the characters arguing over the gold they stole, and plot threads that go nowhere.
And then suddenly as the film reaches its climax, it’s as if they realized that they were starting to run out of time and hastily put together a flashback sequence detailing the history of the house (and its ties to the history of slavery and the indigenous beliefs of the slaves, which in all honesty might have been better suited as its own movie.)
The other problem is the CGI. It’s really hard to take CGI seriously when it’s this fake-looking; unfortunately this is an issue endemic to a lot of horror films of the 00s, where the budget simply wasn’t there for good CGI. The monsters, the scary faces, it’s all bad. Given the quality of the CGI you’d think they’d at least get practical effects right, but you can still clearly see a crewmember pushing a door open with a stick. It’s a minor quibble in a genre full of FX fails, but it does speak to how the film’s priorities are out of whack.
In spite of these problems, however, it’s a creepy, atmospheric southern gothic that makes as much use of its strengths as possible to cover for its shortcomings. It doesn’t quite gel together, but it’s worth watching for glimpses of the film it could have been.