To an extent, that applies to Dead Birds as well. However, for every familiar element that a Dead Birds viewer gets thrown at her, there's a unique twist sweetening the deal. I would say it was like the first time I had Lemon Pepsi, but I really only drink Diet Soda.
During the final dribbles of gore of the fatal Civil War a gang of Confederate Soldiers (led by Henry Thomas' William) proficiently rob a provincial little bank of all its gold, then paint the town red... with the blood of its citizens. (Incidentally, that town was the same set as the idyllic little berg of Burton's Big Fish.) Everything seems as Hunky Dory as dory can hunk and our little group of outlaw veterans (if not veteran outlaws) is riding high in the saddle, seeking out a place to hole up for the night.
Luckily the gaggle of gray coats finds the very plantation home they're looking for. Unluckily, it seems that the damned place is haunted by demons that look like they've spent a few too many hours watching Pink Floyd: The Wall. The evidence literally runs right up to them, but I'll be horn-swoggled if they don't hole up there anyway, just beggin' to be bitch-slapped by the hell's gate nasties. At first, things seem merely weird. Joseph (Mark Boone Junior) scopes the place out while lethal nurse Annabelle (Nicki Aycox) tends to a wound in the shoulder of young Sam (Patrick Fugit, whom you might recognize, because he's almost famous... if not... FUGIT-ABOWDIT). Meanwhile Michael Shannon's Clyde and Isaiah Washington's Todd seem to be in a contest to win America's Most Brooding, without realizing that Henry Thomas has already won that prize.
What follows is not remarkably different in theme or structure from any number of films of this ilk. Ghostly presences begin to present themselves offering words of foreboding, just before twisting countenance toward a much scarier visage. The poor denizens of the citizens' band act a lot more like "That's Odd" and "Did I really SEE that???" than like Scooby and Shaggy after seeing a ghost. And therefore, we have our movie. One by one each cast member is picked off, commonly in some truly imaginative ways. Yeah, this sounds familiar, I'll bet.
But it's the ways in which director Alex Turner and writer Simon Barrett present this thriller that makes it unique. Sure a Civil War Bank Heist turned Hell's Gate Horror Night isn't something you'd expect to watch during any given Superstation Friday Night Meltdown. However, the distinctions here run a lot deeper even than you might think. For one thing, Thomas gives a performance worth phoning home about. He's about the last person I'd cast as a gritty war-time bank robbery leader, but he pulls it off with class. The rest of the cast fills their parts with just as much quality. Isaiah Washington in particular milks quite a lot of stoic pathos from the character of Todd. And that's especially when one takes into consideration just how the slave-owning master of the house got that door to perdition jimmied open. Sure the script is well written, but to have such good actors taking it seriously really manages to sell it as a movie.
Although this is a low budget thriller, the special effects work extremely well, particularly the creature design which is textured and calculated to make you squirm. Further, the surprises never seem cheap and irritating like much modern horror. Oh, it can make you jump, but Dead Birds isn't about startling you, it's about pushing for the creepy. It's hard to tell just where Dead Birds is flying, but you can rest assure it's going somewhere.
Sure this isn't a perfect film. Oft times, the characters seem inconsistent in their motivations. One moment each and every one of them is content to shoot, slaughter and rob innocent folks, the next they're as altruistic as Santa Claus at midnight. I will say, however, that it's notable that frequently the choice of good leads to the undoing of these admittedly bad guys. Also, and I want to be very careful about this... it's not all that hard to see the "Twist in the End" coming. Once the audience has bought into these varied levels of mythology, it doesn't take a deck of Tarot Cards to figure out what's about to happen to our main guys and doll. Dead Birds isn't quite The Sixth Sense, though it may believe it is. Still, if you've bought into it this long, you'll probably be paying attention through the end, just as if every character had just said "E.F. Hutton!"
All in all, this is not your Father's Haunted House flick, and it's safe to say you'll have a damned good time putting the pieces together as they fall into your lap. I'm just glad someone decided to take the horror canvass and paint something new and groovy on it. You won't see this just anywhere. Flawed or not, Dead Birds is a gem. Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Dead Birds, the thrilling heist caper turned nineteenth century Last Ghoul Standing. Now if only they'd ended back at that Big Fish town and we discovered that this whole thing was just another one of smilin' Ed Bloom's "Tall Tales". Now that'd be a surprise, twist ending. Then, maybe both Albert and Ewan could turn to the camera and say "See you in the Next Reel." There's a cool twenty-five bucks in it for each of you, ah?
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