Tuesday, October 22, 2013

18 Days Until Halloween - Dead Birds

"I opened a door."

Alex Turner's Dead Birds has everything going against it.  A slow-burn horror film, set during The Civil War.

So not only does it not have the frantic pace best consumed by mass audiences, but it's a bit of a history lesson as well.

But it's a great horror film.

I found Dead Birds on the New Releases shelf at Hollywood Video.  Yes, I actually left my apartment, got in my car, drove to an actual building that had DVDs on shelves, searched said shelves, picked up the movie, went to the checkout, rented the movie, got back in my car, drove back to my apartment, put the DVD in the DVD player, and watched the movie.

I know, very quaint.

Now, it is very common for movies to be released directly to home video, eschewing the expensive process of releasing a film theatrically.  Any number of trailers on iTunes states that the movie is available for download about a month before it hits theaters.

But back in 2005, if a movie went the direct-to-video route, it usually meant that the film was just fucking awful.  So bad, in fact, that it was unable to secure theatrical distribution.

So with that in mind, I watched Dead Birds.  

Working from a debut feature screenplay by Simon Barrett (who has since gone on to be one of the more prolific artists working in horror today, with contributions to V/H/S, A Horrible Way To Die, You're Next, The ABCs of Death, and V/H/S/2), Dead Birds follows a mixed gang of confederate and union soldiers, deserters one and all, who pull off a bloody heist at a small town bank.

The plan is to escape to Mexico, but first they will lay low in an abandoned farmhouse set in the middle of a vast cornfield.

But the house has a history.

The former owner was a farmer who, with his wife and two children, set to build a comfortable life in the sprawling farmhouse.

But when his wife died, he tried to bring her back through a series of black magic rituals involving the slaughter of all his slaves.  He even murdered his own children, after they became "demons", before being strung up (of sorts -- meaning he was lashed to a giant wooden cross, almost like a scarecrow, and left to die) by the terrified townsfolk.

But his, and all the other malevolent spirits, remain.

The cast is a great character actor assembly, the least-recognizable face (at least in 2004) belonging to Michael Shannon -- who has now eclipsed them all with his turns in Boardwalk Empire and  Man Of Steel.

One by one, the house divides them and reduces their number in horrifying ways.

It's a wonder to me that director Alex Turner wasn't able to capitalize further in his career.  There are a couple more credits to his name, but nothing that meets the expectations that a film like Dead Birds seems to predict.

The cinematography by Steve Yedlin is amazing.  The film is dark and spooky, with deep shadows halved only by pockets of candlelight.  Yedlin has gone on to be Rian Johnson's cinematographer of choice, and recently lensed the Carrie remake.

One of the most startling contributions is the score by Peter Lopez.  Deeply evocative of The Shining, and the works of contemporary classical composers Gyorgy Ligeti, Krzystof Penderecki and Bela Bartok, it is a horror score masterpiece.  I was so inspired to find a copy that I actually contacted Lopez himself.  He was nice enough to send me a copy.  But he has become a bit of a mystery -- with Dead Birds being his last credit.  It's an absolute mystery to me how he has completely dropped off the map.

Dead Birds is just another film on this list that deserves so much more recognition than it has received.

Check it out.

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