Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dead Birds

Dead Birds (2004)
Dir. Alex Turner
Starring Henry Thomas, Nicki Aycox, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, Isaiah Washington

                                             I know, I know. Terrible poster.

DEAD BIRDS is one of those unfortunate films which is actually better than it ought to be but not as good as it needs to be. Honestly, those are always much more frustrating than the ones that never had a chance. CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD is what it is, and it's OK with that. DEAD BIRDS wants to be great. And it is good, but to really work it would have needed to be great.

Here's the pitch: sometime during the civil war, a ragtag team of confederate renegades (renegades even by confederate standards) steal a bunch of gold from a bunch of other confederates, and decide to hide out in a creepy abandoned farmhouse until the heat is off. They’re surprisingly unconcerned when the first thing they encounter is a hideous naked mole rat dog with a human face. But all they have to do is spend one night with five criminals and a bag of gold inside a creepy abandoned Southern plantation house. What could go wrong?

I'll give the film credit. It's as standard a haunted house tale as they make, but the historical setting gives it a bit of flavor. Period horror is one of the last great untapped natural resources of American horror. There have been a few attempts, but they range from similarly frustrating (RAVENOUS) to the baffling (THE KEEP) to the merely unnecessary (TREMORS 3). This one doesn't do a whole lot with the period setting, but at least it’s a good excuse to have scenes mostly lit by unconvincing lamplight. Anyway, after so many films of vacationing teenagers, it’s nice to have a group of characters coming from a different background.

The film also boldly courts atmosphere and tension with a leisurely pace that doesn't feel the need to shout “Boo!” every few minutes. It would work better if the cinematography and music were a bit stronger, however. For all its ambitions at creating an eerie mood, the shots are unimaginatively constructed, the editing is pedestrian, and the lighting amateurish. But give 'em credit for trying; although it never quite works as well as it needs to, its slow but deliberate pace and slowly ratcheting tension does manage to conjure some real – if mild – dread. But yeah, mild doesn't quite cut it.

The problem this turkey has is that its not quite imaginative enough to know what to do with its interesting scenario, so despite the advantage of having a new era to play with, the vast majority of the film just coasts on the oldest haunted house clichés in the book – yes, they have the scene where there's a crying girl in the corner with her face down and a guy walks up and puts his hand on her shoulder. Ghost, ghost, scary face, ghost, ghost, hands grab you from an unexpected place, cute kid gets possessed, ghost, ghost, disemboweling, avid-fart flashback to explain everything, awkward twist ending, bada bing, and we're out. It's that by-the-numbers.

                                     Not even as scary as it looks, I'm afraid.

That could be OK if the filmmaking was a little better (see: THE OTHERS), but there's hardly a shot in the whole thing that doesn't look mediocre and cheap, so not only have you seen all this before, you've seen it done much, much better. Frustratingly, there's sort of an interesting idea in the backstory, where we learn that Muse Watson (so unexpectedly good in DUSK TIL DAWN 2, remember?) was a plantation owner who started sacrificing his slaves in an effort to bring back his dead wife. That's a little unusual AND ties nicely into the period AND even has some possible metaphorical readings about slavery and race relations in America. So it goes without saying that that whole story is crammed into a 45-second frenetic pile of expository flashback.

Instead, they figure we're more interested in watching a bunch of stereotypes running around dealing with the resulting generic ghosts making scary faces at them every now and again. Not so much. Make that prequel, then we'll talk.

The cast is all over the place, but they do a bit to sell the weightiness. Michael Shannon and Mark Boone Junior play one-dimensional stereotypes, but Patrick Fugit and Isaiah Washington commit to their quiet, underwritten characters with an intensity which occasionally brings the film to a fitful sort of life. So that brings the total to 50/50. Unfortunately, Henry Thomas tragically plays the confederates’ leader (and our nominal main character) as a cross between Freddie Prinz Jr. and David Schwimmer. Putting a beard on some pretty boy is not the same thing as making him tough, guys. This guy couldn’t take ET in a fight, let alone command the respect of a bunch of thieving murderous racist good old boys. The script keeps insisting he’s a charismatic leader type, but he’s consistently defeated in the intensity department by Patrick Fugit. Speaking of the Fuge, he surprised the heck out of me in this role, adding layers of depth to this character far beyond his scripted role. He’s rewarded with a great possession scene which he sells with a conviction probably unworthy of this thing.

Watching the accompanying making of doc, it’s clear that director Alex Turner (in his first full-length film) was trying to make something special here, and you gotta admire that ambition. I’m not convinced that he has the instincts to back up his moxie at this point in his career, however; the surprisingly candid doc catches him locking the writer in a hotel room and telling him not to come out til he has an “acceptable” script. At issue is the writer’s assertion that Isaiah Washington’s character should kill himself towards the script’s finale as a way to impart to the viewer the hopelessness of his situation. Turner argues this is an old cliché --which is perhaps a fair concern-- but I’m not convinced that the solution he did go with (Washington is startled by a demon and disappears in a puff of smoke) is really much better. That kind of sums up the way the whole thing plays: the intention of achieving greatness without having quite the imagination to create great substance.  

1 comment:

  1. The haunted house movie is quite possibly my least favorite horror subgenre. I seem to recall this being a decent one, although its been long enough that I can't remember many of the specifics. Good cast, good atmosphere, nothing too offensively stupid, etc.