Dead Birds (2004) – By Timothy Martinez

The
closest thing that I can liken Dead Birds to is Chinese food – it is
nominally filling, but a few hours later you’re hungry again. A similar
experience awaits those who watch this film, finding it moderately
entertaining at first, but upon later reflection, wishing there had
been a little bit more to it.

The story takes place in the state of Alabama in 1863 and centers on a
group of six people, the majority of whom are Confederate soldiers (or
ex-Confederate soldiers, the film was not too clear on that point) with
a single woman thrown into the mix. They carry out a daring and bloody
daylight bank robbery in a small town, which leaves numerous people
dead, before hightailing it out of said town. They head for Mexico,
where they plan on dividing up the stolen loot, but are forced to seek
shelter for the night in an abandoned house when a storm begins to
build. However, as they are crossing the cornfield that separates the
road from the house, they confront and kill a weird animal that no one
can identify. They shrug it off as a skinned bobcat and continue on
their way.

The house is the typically creepy abode and the group makes a thorough
inspection of the building and surrounding estate before settling in.
This is when things begin to unravel for them. At first, the usual
plotting and conspiring occurs between various members concerning the
stolen money and who exactly will be the only ones left alive to divvy
it up. Soon enough, however they begin to encounter more and more
strange phenomena – voices emanating from a well, clawing sounds from
under the stairs and ultimately visions of mangled bodies, ghostly
children and more.

Eventually the secrets of the house come to light: The previous owner,
whose wife was dying of consumption, turned to black magic in order to
restore her to full health. This involved sacrificing the slaves in
horrific rituals, but in the end things went awry and all he managed to
do was open a portal to some other place – be it another dimension or
hell itself. Through this gateway came strange creatures than possessed
the bodies of his family and transformed them into beasts similar to
the one shot in the cornfield. The man was forced to kill his family,
but before he could close the portal, was caught and executed for his
crimes. Now this small group of bank robbers must contend with what has
been let loose on this old estate.

The film takes it’s time in setting up the story and getting things
into motion. This can be good or bad depending on your tastes. For the
ADD crowd, it may be a bad thing, as it means lots of dialog and scenes
where very little advances the plot. On the other hand, for those who
like a movie that takes the time to set up it’s story, this may be more
to your liking. The slow first half certainly allows for more
exploration of the characters. While not scrutinized too closely, we do
get moments with each one where we can see what differentiates them
from the others. We also get the time to see the house in all of it’s
creepy glory. Set design here is minimal, and the creep factor is
derived more from a sense of emptiness and loneliness about the place.
There is that underlying feeling that despite appearing desolate,
someone or some thing is still there.

It is as the story unfolds in the second half when things begin to
slightly fall apart. There are several good “scary” moments, especially
one concerning a figure spotted huddling under a bed, but after
numerous strange incidents, the film doesn’t do the best job in tying
them together or explaining what is going on. The background of the
house and the explanations as to what occurred there are somewhat
muddled. I had a pretty good idea of what the film was trying to
convey, but was forced to listen to the director’s commentary to
confirm those ideas, as they were not made too clear. For instance,
when more than one character encounters the image of a former occupant
of the house, are they really seeing the spirit of that dead person or
is it a trick being played by whatever life forms emerged from that
portal? Indeed, the very concept of the portal is not touched upon too
much.

The FX work ranges from fantastic to passable. Certainly the film’s
standout are the creatures from beyond the portal. With long
needle-like teeth, hollow eye sockets and nearly hairless bodies, they
represent the scariest looking monsters to come along in a while.
Additionally, the “halfway” make-up and CGI effects, used to show a
person who is still partially Human and partially otherworldly critter,
is extremely well done and eerie in the extreme. If I looked under my
bed and saw one of those, I’d be needing new underpants very fast.

Despite those earlier complaints, the film is head and shoulders above
the vast majority of what calls itself horror these days. It does not
shy away from gore, though it does not go out of it’s way to revel in
it either. It also seems to balance psychological horror with a good
old-fashioned haunted house movie, throwing in some Lovecraft-worthy
monsters for good measure. The twist ending may or may not be seen
coming, depending on how close you pay attention to the clues the movie
provides. In the final analysis, Dead Birds is an effectively
entertaining and scary horror film that gets nearly everything right,
it just seems to be missing that extra “oomph” that will have people
coming back to watch it again and again.

Final grade: 3.5 out of 5