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Dead Birds: Mark's Take

06/12/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

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About the only thing that is original and unfamiliar about this house of horrors horror film is that it is set during the Civil War.

There was a time when horror films were always set in distant places and were either period pieces or left in an undetermined time. That was the convention of German Expressionism and Universal did not set a horror film in anything like current day and the United States until 1941 with MAN MADE MONSTER (1941).

Their only major series films set in the United States were SON OF DRACULA and the later Mummy films. These days the convention is to rarely do horror as a period piece or set outside the United States. When Guillermo Del Toro sets a horror film during the Spanish Civil War that is considered a really artistic touch. DEAD BIRDS is unusual just because it is a period piece.

During the American Civil War, a band of deserters robs a gold shipment and then holds up in an abandoned Southern mansion where evil mystical rites had once been performed on unwilling slaves. The creaky old estate proves to be a poor choice for a place to seek refuge. This particular set of deserters is not the most companionable bunch of people anyway. But the problems they have with each other are small compared to the ones they have from whatever inhabits that house. Alex Cox directs a script by Simon Barrett.

The setting of the story in Alabama during the Civil War is the most creative thing about DEAD BIRDS. Few horror films have been set at that time, though horror and supernatural writer Ambrose Bierce used the period quite effectively. The return to his setting is an inexpensive way to give the film a feel of some stature and some atmosphere.

The constant hiss of insect noises helps to make the setting unsettling. Sadly that is about all that is really creative about this film. The film is a very standard issue haunted house sort of film, sort of a slow-to-start and low-grade version of THE EVIL DEAD. Depraved rites have turned the children who used to live in the mansion into ugly demons that look not unlike similar demons we have seen before in other films. Just what these rites were or what happened in this house in the past is never clearly explained.

Standard script mechanisms do not help. There are the usual jump-shot false alarms that are too predictable to pack much punch. The story develops very slowly once it moves to the mansion. There is only one dead bird in the entire film. At least there is only one dead bird that is noticeable. The director assures us that another scene has many, but by his own admission they just look like clods of dirt.

The backstory of what happened in the mansion originally is less than clear. Much of the period feel is poorly handled. The good-looking woman--yes, of course there is one--has obvious makeup that she would probably not have, and if she did she would not use. The Southern uniforms look nice and clean and well tended, not at all dusty.

There are really only two settings in the film. The mansion is a brooding old place that in real life was previously a religious retreat. The town we see briefly at the beginning was purchased cheaply by redressing a village from the film BIG FISH. The demon children are a CGI effect created in Korea.

Thus a promising idea was turned into a rather mundane horror film.

Mark R Leeper

(c) Mark R Leeper 2004

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