Dead Birds may not be the most appropriate title for this creepy indy film that builds heart-racing intensity with the freakiest faces and creepiest children in white that I've seen since The Ring.
The setup is simple, if not a little long. A group of Outlaws in 1863 gallop into town and shoot up everyone in the bank (in a quick and bloody shootout), steal all the gold, and then plan to hide in a deserted plantation mansion before heading to Mexico. If only they knew back then what we know now—old abandoned plantations guarantee evil ghostly happenings….
William (Henry Thomas—still hanging in there) leads this motley crew to their doom. Along with him is his girl Annabelle (Nicki Lynn Aycox), his brother Sam (Patrick Fugit), an African-American dude named Todd (Isaiah Washington) and a couple of tough guys who are there mostly to raise the body count. While the movie has a rather slow build up after an initial frightening moment in a cornfield by the plantation (corn fields never cease being scary), it creates a tension, because there are subtle little hints of what's to come if you watch closely enough. There's a bit of character development, but it's not much and it's really incidental for me—because I'm just out for the scares! And luckily for me, although this is a "period piece," it doesn't get bogged down by many details of the era. I'm not a fan of period piece horror—it's usually much harder to imagine yourself in a terrifying scenario when people are sneaking off to an outhouse and riding horses, but this one becomes so focused on the people that you kind of forget about all that stuff…. The biggest issue of the period came in when they delved a bit into slavery issues, but simply for storyline, not to make any moral social statement. The claustrophobic abandoned mansion created the creeps—and when the creeps finally come in full force (about halfway through the movie. I know, a long time to wait) they are quite frightening---like, jump out of your seat frightening. I'm telling you, you get that feeling of dread you got from The Ring after you knew what the first victim looked like—and you were afraid of the next time you saw another victim. Not to mention, if you've rewatched The Ring, you realize the structure is pretty much the same—frightening moment at the beginning, then a whole load of suspenseful buildup in the middle with no real scares, and then another chill at the end. Creatures from hell and ghosts from hell make this quite a frightfest.
Of course, the film follows some conventions of horror. There's a cornfield. There are ghosts and scary creatures. A group of people in a desolate location get offed one by one. But that's what we love about horror. The only other real issue is that while the ending is good conceptually, it could be considered sort of anti-climatic visually. Still, this movie is worth the goose bumps it delivers throughout due to stylish camera work and a visually frightening presentation.
The film is in anamorphic 1:85:1. The DVD case promises that it is "mastered in high definition." And it looks pretty good. Of course, much of the film is very dark and gloomy, and there's little color. There's a lot of blue-black and orange-black to create the atmosphere. The only real problem with this is that in the dark scenes (of which there are many) there's not a whole lot of separation between different elements on screen. While it's better in the few daylight scenes, these scenes happen to reveal a grainy texture to the film, as well as some dust and specs on the print. Still, the image does its job capturing the darkness of some of my favorite indy horror films.
You get a French 2.0 dolby stereo option along with the 5.1 dolby surround English. In 5.1 the center speak sound is somewhat flat, surprisingly, because the surround draws you in with full sound. Effects move swiftly around the room, building the atmosphere. And the musical score rattles your nerves in its surround form. Bass response is at the perfect level to make your heart skip a beat.
There's a bunch of goodies on this disc:
SCENE SELECTION—20 chapter breaks, but I wouldn't use them until I've seen the whole movie. Some of the most frightening visuals in the film are pictures in thumbnails at each chapter select!
SUBTITLES—This is insane. Here are your options: Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai. Wow. (Wow isn't a subtitle choice, that was just me throwing in my two cents).
DEAD BIRDS TRAILER—a letterboxed preview.
PREVIEWS—trailers for four more horror films.
MAKING DEAD BIRDS—there's more profanity in this documentary than in the whole movie, beginning with a shot of one of the film's producer's at what looks like a bar, cursing his mouth off. This is one fun-loving crew. The documentary shows the team as they write and repair the script, discuss the family tree of people who are producing this film, and the company that created the creatures in the film. They discuss locations, and how even Tim Burton helped them out. Then there's some good behind-the-scenes footage of cast and crew. The feature runs 26 minutes.
COMMENTARY WITH DIRECTOR ALEX TURNER—the director self-critiques his own film, wishing for more time away from it before having to comment on it because he's still too close to it. He mostly discusses technical stuff about making the film, and creating the special effects.
COMMENTARY WITH CAST & CREW—that would be director Alex Turner once again, actors Henry Thomas and Nicki Lynn Aycox, the script writer, and the score composer. Some of Alex's comments are quite repetitive from the solo commentary. The actors give some input into making and working in the film, and the composer comments on his work, while he's also praised for his great musical cues. They also discuss the rather long setup to the real scares. I'd go with this commentary over the first one if I only had to listen to one, because it gives you various perspectives.
Dead Birds has it all—body count, blood, creeps, ghouls and ghosts, and a major chill factor. Well, it doesn't have dead birds—oh wait, there is ONE—which makes the title the only real issue. While the tension builds quite slowly, it's well worth the wait, because this one is haunting.