Sony // 2004 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 2nd, 2005
There are worse things than dying.
No doubt, there are worse things than dying, one of which is watching a film die before your tired eyes. Indie director Alex Turner's Dead Birds is much like watching a feathered friend fly into a window and be smacked silly and left to flutter and flail hopelessly on the hot sidewalk until it dies of overexertion. Yeah, this film is a lot like that.
It's 1863 in Fairhope, Alabama, where a band of Confederate soldiers ride in on horseback to deposit a hefty sum of gold coins from the U.S. Mint into the local bank. A ragtag band of desperados slither into town and shoot up the bank in bloody fashion, making off with the bags of loot. The soft-spoken yet determined William (Henry Thomas, E.T.) leads the band of six outlaws, including the lovely and lethal Annabelle (Nicki Lynn Aycox, Jeepers Creepers 2), who mercilessly slit a bank patron's throat yet is ready to make soft, passionate love to William. They make their way to the Hollister mansion, a deserted farmhouse isolated amidst sprawling cornfields, to plot their escape into Mexico, where they'll evade the law and split the loot. There's something wrong with the dusty old ranch house, though, as strange sounds and spooky visions begin to haunt the crooks. One by one, the outlaws fall prey to something that lurks within the house and stalks the cornfield nearby. Soon, the desperados' concerns of how and when to split the gold pale in comparison to the dire need to simply survive the strange inhabitants of this haunted mansion.
Sadly, Dead Birds sounds a whole bunch better than it actually plays out. Don't let the undeniably spooky DVD box art fool you: That toothy spook only appears a few times and not in any sort of pervasive or effective manner. This movie is an odd sort of horror-western that could have had promise but doesn't make good use of its premise. Without offering any sort of spoiler, I will tell you that it all revolves around the grisly deeds of a man who turns to the most gruesome sort of black magic to resurrect his dead wife. No one is spared as this desperate man seeks to revive his true love; from the servants to the man's own children, all are expendable if it means restoring life to the dearly departed. To that end, Dead Birds has strong potential as a truly spooky ghost story with an added element of interest in its 1800s setting. But even though the emerging Almost Real Studios provided plenty of graphic effects, somehow the filmmakers managed to muck it all up and delivered a picture that kept me waiting for the pace to pick up and ultimately left me disappointed that more could not have been done.
At this point, let me jump ahead to the extras on the disc, because the featurette, "Making Dead Birds," might have the answer: The producers seem like real jackasses. Dropping F-bombs and relentlessly badgering everyone from the writer to the makeup designers, producer Tim Peternel seems to be a high-maintenance headache. ("There's two ways you deal with writers: You either pound them into submission -- which is probably what we have to do is pound the guy and pound him until we have the draft.") I can see the flood of screenwriters pounding on this producer's door, hoping to help him with his next film. Oh, but wait, because this warm and fuzzy film producer has plenty of constructive criticism to impart upon the effects team at Almost Real: "This looks like a retarded alien! Thirty thousand dollars down the tube!" Sheesh. Sadly, this fellow's personality obviously infects the collaborative cohesiveness of the rest of the team, as fellow producer David Hillary and director Alex Turner join in the smack-down. If this film failed to reach its potential, I'd have to ask this prickly producer to do some explaining.
The acting is actually decent, with Henry Thomas doing rather well in his role. The rest of the cast members are quite committed to their roles despite the derailment waiting to happen here. (Actor Patrick Fugit even comments, "It's not that I didn't like the last part...I just didn't know what the hell was going on." Not good.) But, it's really the acting that holds our interest here because, after a well-executed shoot-out that would have made Sam Peckinpah sit up and applaud, the whole thing bogs down to an annoyingly slow pace and then just confuses us with a weird ghost story so that we're never quite sure what exists in this world or the next world or just what in the world it all means. Hopefully that cuddly producer feels plenty satisfied with the fruits of his ill-mannered leadership.
A borrowed bankroll does not a good film make.
Back to the disc itself, Dead Birds comes to us from Sony in a transfer that far outshines its inherent content. Framed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, this anamorphic transfer looks pretty good. The sharp detail and good contrast control offer a good look at the few interesting things that happen in the mostly darkened production. The color is rather muted, but that seems to be a deliberate result of the production design, which sought to provide some sense of authenticity to this period piece. The audio is presented in a trumped-up Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that envelops the viewer in a well-spaced soundstage with a pretty regular flow of directional effects. In essence, Dead Birds looks and sounds better than it really is.
Far more expository information is available in the extras than I think the filmmakers intended. Besides the "Making of Dead Birds" featurette that leads us through the production process, the other highly compelling feature is the audio commentary with director Alex Turner, who laments the fact that he hasn't had much time to distance himself from the production in order to truly assess it in a more objective manner (dang, this guy makes it sound -- to me anyway -- like this was a painful experience...and I'm not surprised). In another commentary, Turner is joined by actors Thomas and Aycox as well as writer Simon Barrett and composer Peter Lopez. This one plays a bit better but still seems to betray the fact that this was a difficult production to endure. Beyond these commentaries are a handful of deleted scenes that couldn't have saved the film, a trailer of the film, and previews of other Sony releases.
It's a shame to be so harsh on this picture because it truly seems that much of the talent assembled here could deliver some good results had they been orchestrated in a more collaborative and collectively creative manner. My disappointment with this picture is largely fueled by the obvious potential, which was wasted needlessly. Frankly, I'd like to see Alex Turner continue to pursue other genre pictures because he definitely shows an inclination towards this subject matter. I also enjoyed seeing Henry Thomas at work, though I wish he would have phoned home to get the skinny on the film before signing up.
Witnessing a wasted opportunity is probably more maddening than suffering through a picture that was destined to fail from the outset. Dead Birds disappointed and angered me because it had so much potential to rise up and lead the next wave of edgy horror films that are so desperately sought out by those of us tired of castrated creature features that seek a PG-13 rating instead of delivering true horror thrills. Unfortunately, Dead Birds couldn't quite rise from the ashes to deliver us from the lack of true cinematic evil. I say skip this one.
The producers of Dead Birds are hereby sentenced to a weekend of team-building exercises. The director and his capable cast -- including the makeup team at Almost Real -- are found not guilty. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentaries
* "Making of Dead Birds" Featurette
* Deleted Scenes