Monday, June 21, 2010

(Dead) Bird Is the Word

Jeepers do I wish there was more historically set horror. Though I imagine big studios are reluctant to drop heavy money bags on a sub-genre that makes mass audiences feel dumb and low budget producers have enough to worry about without the added pressure of period-appropriate props, watching zombies shamble in a pre-panic room world or werewolves hunt car-less victims is just more interesting.
2004’s Dead Birds has a lot of appeal for bored horror fans. With a way better than average cast and more importantly, a Civil War setting, it takes a fresh (in an old fashioned way, if that makes sense) approach to good old Satanism and ghostly hauntings.

Quick Plot: A ragtag gang of bandits (deserting Union soldiers, a love interest nurse, and an escaped slave) introduce themselves by robbing a Confederate bank and spilling a whole lot of impressive/over-the-top blood. In need of rest, leader William (E.T.’s Henry Thomas, bearded and believably manly) leads them to a deceased soldier’s abandoned mansion where CGIish children, scarecrows, and weirdly hairless human-sized dog thingies slowly appear as our antiheroes split up to develop and reveal their own conflicts.

William feels guilty for accidentally shooting a child. His lady friend Annabelle seems haunted by the death of a lovelorn soldier and, in the most interesting, yet least developed plot thread, Michael Shannon’s Clyde and Mark Boone Jr.’s Joseph hesitantly plot to ensure their share of the loot doesn’t fall into the black hands of Todd (Isaiah Washington). Naturally, these flawed individuals are prime fodder for the mysterious villains eager to harass their uninvited guests.

In terms of plot and execution, there’s nothing overly exciting about Dead Birds. The ghoulish kid monsters have a creepy quality, but the forced jump scares are far too reminiscent of J-horror sprites. At the same time, the setting itself and high pedigree cast lend a whole lot in elevating the film above the usual straight-to-DVD fare.
High Points
Am I being too hopeful, or was the eerie ragdoll with eyes and mouth sewn shut a vague visual reference to the debut Doll’s House feature, Cathy’s Curse ?

Though some viewers may complain about the not-quite complete mythology the bizarre nature of the kills is both unique and disturbing
Low Points
Peter Lopez’s score isn’t terrible, but it’s used in such a predictable way that generally negates any scare potential packed by the surprise images

I don’t mind--in fact, my High Point proves, I rather enjoyed--the lack of any specific explanation, but leaving the fate of one major character to an incomplete image is a little frustrating
Lessons Learned
Sadly, real gold does not contain a chocolate center

Slutty 19th century nurses can really bring your day down

Always pay close attention to the incredibly obvious musical cues. It will totally protect you from the inevitable jump scares.
This is a genuinely solid watch that can certainly grab you if you’re in the right mood. Though I had a few issues with some of the execution, the Western/Confederate spin and confident ghost story is a definite rent that will probably hold up for repeat viewings. I’d love to see director Alex Turner sharpen his own voice a little more without relying on a few contrived cinematic tricks. Even so, Dead Birds is a solid recommendation that will offer tired horror fans something new.


  1. Wait... so I'm not the only one who saw this movie?

    Seriously though, I found this movie to be incredibly eerie and it took me by surprise as I was not expecting something like this when I rented the movie (that was way back when I used to rent everything, not caring whether the movie was actually good or bad), I didn't even know it was a Western.

    By the way, am I the only one who felt incredibly disturbed by the appearance of the two "demon" children? I thought they looked incredibly scary.

  2. I too wish there were more period piece horror films (about the only period piece films that I can take--Pride and Prejudice *shudders*). Check out Sauna if you haven't already.

    This looks decent. I think its on NetFlix instant watch....

  3. Bah. I wasn't a fan of Dead Birds. I think I was way too offended by the jumpe scares and J-horror aspect of it all. I kept feeling like it was trying to be something it wasn't. After the first scary face I was scared. But after it kept happening again and again--I realized that was all the movie had. I didn't get a good grasp of atmosphere because the "scary faces" were too in your face all the time. It all goes back to that idea of asking myself, was I really scared? Or was the sudden jolt of a scary face and ear piercing noise just startling? It was too easy of a scare. I did rather enjoy seeing the fate of the two slaves in the basement though.

    And I must agree with you 100% on the fate of our gold dusted friend. What the hell was that? That's all he gets? Frickin lame.

  4. I'm another fan of Dead Birds - loved the eerie atmosphere and the period-film take on things. It was a quiet, disturbing film, and the silence scared me a lot more than the J-Horror wannabe freaky faced kids (though on first viewing I did jump).

    And I'm gonna have to recommend Sauna as well. If you like Dead Birds, I too, think you'll appreciate that one. I'd also recommend Session 9, which is in the same creepy vein - but who the hell hasn't seen that?

  5. Atroxion:
    On one hand, the title leads you to expect a silly bird-horror, but that actually helps to maximize your surprise when you end up such an effective little ghost story. I really think the film would have been terrifying with better sound/score design, but I do think the visuals and general setting establish a strong and eerie mood.

    I will totally now check out Sauna! I remember reading about it in Fangoria a while back but had completely forgotten about it until now. My watching it will be because of you!

    I can see your point. Had it not been for the Civil War setting, this film would easily have been forgettable. I think there was a lot of potential, some of which did still get me (but then I'm a sucker for scarecrows and dolls, so you know). And poor gold dusted sprinkle man. I guess that's the price you pay when you make slurs against homosexuals! (in the future, and in real life, and so on)

    I didn't draw the Session 9 connection, but that is a good point. Much stronger in that film, but has a similar atmosphere/setting-as-villain feel. And now my wtching Sauna will be a shared responsibility!

  6. I loved the long shot of the brown corn field with the house in the background. This was used a few times in the film to great effect. Once the group took refuge indoors, it became almost a standard haunted house movie. Good point about the music, it was really uninspired and predictive. I'm now on a quest for more historical horror.

  7. I'm drawing such a dreadful blank on historical horror at the moment. Apparently Sauna is a popular choice. Aside from that, all I can think of is Ravenous but I'm sure there are plenty more we need to uncover. New mission!

  8. I guess you could add "The Burrowers", "I Sell the Dead", "Sweeney Todd" (if you consider that horror) and "The Others" while we're at it.