Dead Birds. 2004. Directed by Alex Turner. Screenplay by Simon Barrett.
Starring Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Nicki Aycox, Michael Shannon, Muse Watson, Mark Boone Junior, Isaiah Washington, Harris Mann, Melanie Abramoff, Donna Biscoe, Brian Bremer, Russell Durham Comegys, David Dwyer, Michael Faella, & Steve Green.
Silver Nitrate Pictures/Dead Birds Films.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Both on their first feature film, director Alex Turner (later directed Red Sands) and writer Simon Barrett (later wrote A Horrible Way to Die, You’re Next, The Guest + more) came out swinging with Dead Birds. Set in the era of the Civil War, this takes horror into period piece territory, a Western-type world of old America. A huge reason I love this one is because I love horror, and I’m absolutely a sucker for period pieces; I’m talking I love musicals, historical films, war movies, all sorts of different stuff. So combining a nice dose of supernatural, Southern-flavoured horror in with the Civil War, slavery, religion, it creates one nasty whirlwind of qualities of which I can never get enough. I bought this one on a whim, as I’ve done many times – sometimes regrettable, other times worth it – and the surprise was immediate. Even from the start, Barrett’s writing makes the screenplay interesting, filled with intricate characters and a complicated set of relationships, and an nice opener to get the film’s adrenaline flowing proper.
Not everyone finds the same things scary, nor does everybody have the same definition of what being scared means to them. For me, I don’t have to be up all night and cowering under the sheets. However, when a movie manages to get under my skin to the point I think of it long after it’s finished, that is something which impresses me, and scares me. The longer the ideas, the terror sets in, the further creeped out I become. This is a scary little flick. Might not cause nightmares, but still, a scary bit of horror with a dose of historical fiction to boot.
The opening scene paints the place red with blood, in a great way. So there’s nothing better than a horror-thriller, in this case twisted with some Western DNA, that starts out with a literal bang. Not only that it involves the death of a child near its end before transitioning into the next scene, which then plays on the conscience of William (Henry Thomas). This is one great start to a film, of any genre. Barrett is a solid writer whose prowess shines in starting up so much intense plot within under 10 minutes. It’s really something I admire as an author, also as a viewer. His writing makes for an interesting look at the Civil War-era of America, in the South no less.
This is a script we’ve seen a thousand times. Not under Barrett’s pen. He manages to create a unique little story that’s creepy, fun (in that scary movie way), and, above all, interesting as hell. Among the group of characters, a half dozen Confederate deserters, are some more honourable than others, and that allows for plenty curious plot strands aside from the main plot line. Such as the two more sleazy dudes, Clyde (Michael Shannon) and Joseph (Mark Boone Junior). They aren’t exactly as nice of guys as Todd (Isaiah Washington), an escaped slave, or even William, though his accidental killing of the child in town throws his morality in question, particularly with himself above our judgements.
While so many modern horror movies often turn characters in a group against one another to create drama, Barrett doesn’t do this simply for drama’s sake. He creates characters that as a whole don’t want to be part of the Confederate Army, as well as the fact they’re all different, they have individual motivations that may not all exactly align with the next. Organically constructed drama like that is what horror needs in order for it to work. I can forgive a couple special effects blunders in lieu of having a passionately written cast of characters, which leads to more effective chills and thrills.
The cinematography is excellent, along with the horribly unsettling score that swells and shakes and rattles. First time director Alex Turner makes great choices, keeping the feeling of the period alive. For the most part I’d bet this was light naturally, as opposed to studio lighting. Could be wrong, but either way the lighting works because it keeps us in the Civil War period and makes it real. Whereas I’m not a huge fan of the creatures they find around the plantation, the one they shoot on the way through the cornfields, I do like the creepy kid under the bed. Also, there are a few well placed ghostly presences in the backgrounds of shots, in mirrors, and so on. I actually caught a new one after seeing the movie a bunch of times, always keeping my eye out for more now when I go back and watch it again. Aside from all that Turner and the unnerving lens of cinematographer Steve Yedlin (also shot the terrific May and a bunch of stuff after this flick) are what makes watching this film a nice fun treasure chest of scares.
Another major asset is the fact this ensemble cast is actually a bunch of incredibly talented actors. Usually in horror we’re so used to seeing these teen slasher flicks, especially those of us who were teens themselves in the midst of Scream and all its lesser copycats, that are more often than not jammed full of talentless, second (or lower) rung actors. Instead, Dead Birds has first rate talent like Michael Shannon, Patrick Fugit, and even some guys I believe have that same talent (they’re just not used appropriately enough) such as Isaiah Washington, Mark Boone Junior, and Henry Thomas. Nicki Aycox is even good here and I’ve never seen her in anything worthwhile. But it just seems like everyone fits their role, and it could’ve been done in any time period. They were all cast spot on. Most of all, Shannon, Fugit, Washington, and Howard each make for memorable performances. They’re the crux of the realism behind the characters, even as Barrett plunges them into a sinister, surreal environment. Because of the fact the whole cast is interesting in their own respective rights, having them split up, murdered – typical horror formula – is not stale. Rather it is a lot of scary movie fun because these are good actors, they can sell the characters and their fears, the paranoia, all that. We don’t get a bunch of screaming, whining, annoying actors flailing about the set. We get real emotion and that makes the whole film better for it.
The final 25 minutes are intense, so good. Love how the horror really takes hold for this last stretch. All those visions Sam (Fugit) has while Annabelle (Aycox) witnesses them, they are a real trip. Sets out all the history without too much expository dialogue, or any really aside from Todd and his short lines about the slaves. It’s all hinted through Sam’s ramblings then those odd images we see of the plantation’s former owner. Some say the ending is no good. I dig it. Makes the horror of that plantation house feel ancient, as if it will exist that way forever, taking any poor soul who dares step inside, or even onto the land itself.
Overall, Dead Birds is a good horror. It’s a fun ride, spooky, and has good performances. The writing from Barrett is just top notch – for instance, I love the little touch of how you’ve got a guy like Clyde who doesn’t like black people, yet ditches the Confederate Army, juxtaposed with William, who in one scene literally puts his hands over those of Todd as the two try to open a door in the haunted old house. There are plenty of these nice spots of writing that Barrett uses to enrich the story, the characters, the movie. I can watch this any time. If you’re in the mood for some historical creeps, check this out. Civil War-era horror needs to become a bigger sub-genre, as Barrett and Turner help prove with their eerie effort.