In 1863, six Confederate soldiers rob a bank and decide to spend the night in an empty plantation before heading off to Mexico to split their take. What they don’t know is that the old building harbors some nasty spirits who aren’t too happy to be sharing space with the convicts. This is “The Wild Ones” meets “The Amityville Horror” with a touch of “Evil Dead” thrown in for good measure. What’s more, it works.
“Dead Birds” is a completely unexpected film: a made-on-the-cheap flick that looks impressively high budget. More impressive however is its Asian mentality; in spite of being an American made period piece, it doesn’t feel the need to explain away every facet of the story. Even the effects, and there are some good ones here, feel like they came from an Eastern production company.
Sound is used unusually well, particularly in the plantation’s dead corn field, where footsteps are constantly heard running in opposite directions. Whereas most films would place music cues to show the audience how they should be feeling during plot points and twists, director Alex Turner wisely lets the screenplay breathe on its own, leaving the story and skilled performances to do the job.
Speaking of performances, “Dead Birds” features what may be the most impressive cast of character actors I’ve seen in a horror film in a long time, and one that certainly belies its small budget. Check out these familiar faces: Patrick Fugit (“Almost famous”), Michael Shannon (“8 Mile”, “Vanilla Sky”), Isaiah Washington (“Ghost Ship”), Nicki Lynn Aycox (“Jeepers Creepers II”), Henry Thomas (“Suicide Kings”, “Gangs of New York”), and the always watchable Mark Boone Jr. (“Memento”, “Batman Begins”). Amazingly, each character gets fairly equal screen time, and the viewer gets a pretty good sense of each one. That is, until they start disappearing and the blood begins to fly.
Dead Birds may be a banal name, but it definitely delivers the goods. Sure, it’s formulaic (quiet, quiet, BOO!, quiet, quiet, BOO!), but I’ll be damned if most of those BOO!s don’t work. I jumped several times, and once even reflexively swore at the screen. Some of the effects shots are a bit too bright and linger a little too long but, overall, “Dead Birds” is a damn fine American made film that, while displaying its influences proudly, remains refreshingly original.
Pros: Concentrates on scaring the hell out of you and leaves the “why” up to the viewer. Very cool effects…
Cons: …that are sometimes shown a bit too often. The plot is a little too familiar.
Review Rating: 4 out of 5 times you’re told not to look under the bed, you do anyway. Don’t you?
“Dead Birds” (2004)
91 Minutes; USA
Rated R for strong violence, sexuality and gore.
Henry Thomas (William)
Nicki Lynn Aycox (Annabelle)
Isaiah Washington (Todd)
Michael Shannon (Clyde)
Patrick Fugit (Sam)
Mark Boone Jr (Joseph)
Muse Watson (Father)
Directed by: Alex Turner
Written by: Simon Barrett
Viewing Format: DVD
(Originally published on HorrorWatch)