The black heart of horror no longer beats in Hollywood, as none of the major players even try to come up with original, let alone good, horror films these days. All is not lost, however, as indie filmmakers have risen up to carry the dark banner. Do not look askance at all of today's low-budget, direct-to-video horror offerings, for only here can you find new horror films of substance and genuine creepiness. You would do well to start right here with Dead Birds, as director Alex Turner has given us one gem of a horror movie.
Things start off with a bang - well, several bangs, really - as a group of no-good outlaws rob an Alabama bank in 1863. These guys are free and easy with their trigger fingers and knives, leaving a real mess of blood and gore in their wake. It's bad enough that they slaughter innocent civilians, but they go too far when they also kill a group of Rebel soldiers trying to deposit two bags of Confederate gold. Thus it was established that, whatever happened to them, these guys would get no sympathy from me. I was actually a tad concerned about the gore in this early scene, though - it was effective but a tad gratuitous (does a head really explode in such a complete manner from one well-placed shot?), and I worried that the filmmaker was trying a little too hard to play up to us gorehounds. Such concerns quickly fell by the wayside, as the rest of the film is masterfully done.
The gang (which includes a woman as well as a black man) rides off in search of a certain plantation house the leader learned about from a fellow wounded soldier, planning to bed there overnight before heading off to Mexico with their new riches. Personally, I would have taken one look at that deserted plantation house and kept on riding, but the gang moves on in for the night. They find respite from an approaching thunderstorm, but there will be no rest for the weary tonight. It's pretty easy to see that this house just isn't right; heck, some unclassifiable beast runs out of the cornstalks at them before they even get close to the front door. One by one, these hardened outlaws are given glimpses of the dark history of the place - it starts out with the usual kind of stuff (e.g., giggles, voices, creaks, etc.) but the cinematography makes it work like gangbusters. Eventually, ghostly images appear and, more often that not, morph into frightening demonic creatures. The CGI is rather Grudge-ish, yet it is very effective. Of course, the key to good horror is not the ghostly manifestations, it is the atmosphere and level of suspense that precede and accompany them - and this is where Dead Birds truly excels. If you're like me and watching this movie alone, odds are you will find yourself advising the characters on screen not to do this or to stay away from that or to simply run like the dickens (or words to that effect) on more than one occasion. The characters, I can assure you, will not heed your advice, even as things get spookier and more dangerous as the night wears on.
Some of the movie descriptions that I saw led me to believe the characters all turn on one another - this is misleading. Naturally, any group of outlaws hovering over two big bags of gold are going to be suspicious of one another (and there is also a touch of racial distrust for the black man thrown into the mix), but you won't see these characters act on their suspicions and become the agents of their own destruction. The threat here is external and very, very real.
Aside from a somewhat shaky start, the actors really grow into their respective roles, and that makes the horrors all the more effective. You may recognize Henry Thomas, the fellow playing the leader of the gang - I knew he looked familiar, but I didn't recognize him as young Elliott from E.T. until I discovered that piece of information in another review. The female character, Nicki Aycox, looks a lot like Lisa Marie Presley, but that's neither here nor there. I must admit, though, that the film's title, while catchy, is a bit of a puzzler, as only one oblique reference is made to dead birds during the film.
Is the movie scary? Not necessarily. It is, however, thoroughly creepy, and I much prefer a creepy movie over a scary one. A good scare can be exhilarating, but it's over and done with in a hurry. Creepiness, in contrast, works its way into your bones, where it is distilled into something that stays with you long after the original source of the creep factor is gone. That, if you ask me, is what horror is really all about - and, I am glad to say, that is also what Dead Birds is all about. That is exactly why I love this movie.