From this year’s Midnight Madness selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, Dead Birds was one I went into with the least amount of expectation. It’s a ghost story set during the Civil War. Cool premise but as of late with the high bar that the Asian horror scene has set, it’s hard to get worked up with a North American take on the subject matter. Where the East mainly focus on trying to scare the living crap out of you, we on the other hand soften it up with tons of exposition that diffuse the tension right before you leave the theater. Asian classics such as the Ju-On films and The Ring are frightening, a little of the wall but gives the audience enough information. It doesn’t kill the thrill of ambiguity. While The Ring remake is efficient, it overly explains the plot and ties up all the loose ends which by the end, there is nothing to really be scared about. But to my surprise, Dead Birds does not follow that clichéd pattern.
The film is about a group of Confederate soldiers who after robbing a bank that ends up in a bloodbath, shack themselves up in an abandoned plantation. Before you know it, things start going bump in the night. It’s a fairly simple story structure but what makes this one stand out is the attention to detail. The characters and backstory are very nicely developed. These characters are flawed and fascinating. Their idiosyncrasies determine their eventual outcome. There is not a lot of time spent on characters boring us with constant exposition. Director Alex Turner masterfully tells the story with visuals rather than spending a great deal of time with dialogue. He focuses on creating a very creepy atmosphere and a constant sense of dread. The film’s tension builds slowly but when the scares come, they’re very effective. Also I really enjoyed the fact that nothing is over-explained. Much is left to the viewer’s imagination. These qualities clearly show an influence from the Asian horror scene. The unsettling ending succeeds mainly because the filmmakers choose to go this route. Dead Birds’ atmospheric qualities reminds me most of the classic X-Files episode, Home. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? Personally I feel it was the best episode from the series.
You can’t keep your eyes away from the film’s impressive looking setting as well. The gothic-looking mansion and the giant crops surrounding it, have got to be one of the most freakiest looking locations in recent memory. The film’s cinematography is stunning and creates the perfect tone for the film. I also found the creatures to be really cool and menacing. They are grotesque and beautifully designed. Dead Birds also contains some rather gory moments. There is some ambitious CG work. Some work very effectively especially as the film progresses but during the heist at the beginning, some of it looked pretty fake and unnecessary. What’s wrong with some good old squib effects? The score is one of the most important factors behind the film’s success. It creates the perfect counterpart to the visuals. The music powerfully enhances the film’s scares and contributes nicely towards the escalating tension.
One of Dead Birds strong points is its impressive casting. Henry Thomas delivers another mesmerizing performance like the one gave in Alex Winter’s highly underrated and criminally unnoticed thriller, Fever. Rounding out the rest of the cast is equally strong turns from Isaiah Washington, Patrick Fugit (that kid from Almost Famous), Nicki Lynn Aycox, Michael Shannon (Michael Bay regular) and the always reliable Mark Boone Junior. They create fully rounded, complex characters. Hands down, the best ensemble in a horror film this year!
Dead Birds is an all around pleasant surprise. Sure, the film is a rather standard horror flick. This is not new territory. But what makes it stand out from the crowd is it’s willingness to slowly build tension without beating you into your skull every second. Turner is much more interested in creating an atmosphere especially from the characters struggle with the manifestations and inner demons. That is far more fascinating and creepier. The scares become much more satisfying when they do arrive. Dead Birds is spooky, complex and brilliantly crafted ghost story. Hopefully someone picks it up for a theatrical run and not shelf it at the local video store. That would be a damn shame.