Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Dead Birds (2004)

This film automatically gets points for attempting and pulling off a Civil War era setting with a budget of only $1.5-million. It seems unlikely that Dead Birds will become any kind of classic, but it’s a competently made low-budget chiller with a strong cast, some good scares, and some way cool creatures.

A gang of bank robbers dressed like Confederate soldiers makes off with a large quantity of gold. The gang’s leader William is played by Henry Thomas, best known as Elliot from E.T., and despite the beard he sports here, he doesn’t appear to have aged much in the intervening years.

During the blood-drenched bank heist William’s brother Sam, played by the equally baby-faced Patrick Fugit (star of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous), takes a bullet to the shoulder. The thieves remain otherwise unscathed, which is more than can be said for the occupants of the bank. The gore effects are both ambitious and effective, though I’m fairly certain a civil war era pistol would not shear a man’s skull in half.

The thieves make for the old Hollister Place, an abandoned plantation where they plan to hole up for the night before making a break for Mexico. Just outside the hideout, though, a nightmarish beastie that no one can identify as human or animal attacks our anti-heroes. Once inside the house, it soon becomes clear that something evil resides there. William and Todd discover a book with an incantation for raising the dead. Sam has several spectral/demonic visitations, but are they merely a product of his infected wound? Soon, though, the others are also seeing things that just aren’t right, and the desire to hang onto the gold they’ve stolen must be balanced against the value of their own lives and perhaps even their souls.

One of the movie’s biggest assets is its cast. William’s girlfriend, the razor-wielding Annabelle, is played with pluck and homespun sex appeal by Nicki Aycox of Jeepers Creepers II fame. Isaiah Washington, currently appearing on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy plays Todd, the gang’s only African American member. Given the time period, Todd’s ethnicity adds tension to an already shaky group dynamic. Michael Shannon and Mark Boone, Jr. respectively play Clyde and Joseph who comprise a gang within the gang, and their goals are not necessarily in line with those of their compatriots.

The disk features some nice extras. Commentary buffs will rejoice at the inclusion of two audio commentary tracks, one from director Alex Turner and one from the cast and crew. There’s also a fascinating “making of” featurette in which we see members of the production staff getting drunk in hotel rooms, arguing over creature designs, and detonating 8 squibs strapped to a 90-year old man.

All in all, a nice little scare-fest that seems a little reminiscent of William Wesley’s Scarecrows (1988). Not all questions are answered, notably the meaning of the title, but this leaves a feeling of mystery even after the end credits have rolled.

Dead Bird's entry at IMDB

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Shannon said...

This movie gave Joel the super-willies! When the girl looks under the bed and sees the little kid? Yah, he screamed like a baby.

I read somewhere that an old superstition is that when a dead bird is found around your property, it indicated the impending death of a family member. I kinda assumed there was some correlation to the title.

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