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It is the 1800s. After viciously robbing a bank, a small group of Confederate soldiers needs to take refuge to allow the dust to settle and to plan next moves. Whilst making their escape from town, one of them has accidentally shot a small boy and as such, they all realise that the authorities will not be far behind. They make their way to a local sugar plantation, where a disused house enables them to stash their gold and rest for the night, safe from the pounding rain and howling winds outside.
But the old house has secrets. Strange noises and nightmarish visions greet their every turn. What is the secret of the old house and who - or what - lurks in the dark corners? This will be a night that William and cohorts are unlikely to forget
With a name like Dead Birds, you might expect Dead Birds to be a rather silly film. How much mileage can there be, I hear you ask, in a story about deceased animals? You may therefore be pleasantly surprised to know that Dead Birds is actually nothing about dead birds. Confused? You will be.
To say that Dead Birds is a shite film is actually quite unfair because from the beginning it shows tremendous potential. There are lots of things that I liked about this film. For a start, the nineteenth century setting is quite unusual, if nothing else. The film is quite competently constructed too. Director Alex Turner makes great use of the creepy setting, creating a great sense of foreboding as the party of soldiers makes its way to the old plantation. As they draw closer, the old white building is framed in the distance, lurking like some malevolent creature waiting for its prey to arrive. Even if the soldiers don't feel that something bad is going to happen, the audience certainly does. Perhaps the man nailed to the cross at the edge of the corn field is a fair clue?
Turner cranks things up as the film progresses, injecting brief glimpses of who knows what and playing to the fears of the soldiers, isolated in the creepy old house. There is no safety in numbers and sure enough, they soon separate and start to experience their own terrors. A child's voice calls from the dark depths of a well. Having refused to yield to the strength of two fully grown men, the once closed basement door slowly creaks open. An injured soldier starts to hallucinate and sees strange figures at the foot of his bed - but is he just hallucinating? The old house holds many mysteries indeed.
It's just a shame that the story plays out in such a clumsy, convoluted fashion that the audience never really feels as though as anyone has tried to piece things together properly. We learn (and it's not a plot spoiler) that the plantation owner was something of a devil worshipper, spending his time sacrificing the slave workers and committing unspeakable acts upon his children. What isn't totally clear, however, is exactly why. Presumably the usual goals of power and world domination are in there somewhere, but to what extent he is successful is in itself something of a mystery.
And that's really where Turner goes so terribly wrong. You see, with what appears to be a fairly limited budget, he has to resort to telling most of the story through flashbacks and nightmares, which does not lend itself particularly well to lucid story telling. I could never quite tell what was supposed to be real and what was not and as the film drew on, I'm afraid. At the heart of Dead Birds is a potentially gripping tale of supernatural nastiness, but on the outside, it's a convoluted mess. The children drop in and out with demonically disfigured faces, but they're never around long enough to really "get to know". Strange, skinless dog-like creatures run through the cornfields - who or what they are is never quite clear. The characters understandably start to go a bit doolally but they seem unable to escape the clutches of the house for reasons never really explored. In all, it's a clammy concoction of every other film you've seen in this genre.
And this is where it's so disappointing. Building up the setting and the location so effectively, Turner makes the dreadful mistake of pulling every "demon possession" cliché out of the box and piling them on. People who raise demons or worship Satan need a reason for doing so. Their relative levels of success need to be clearly demonstrated - are we dealing with ghosts or monsters or both? And clearly, if people are hallucinating or having visions, we also need to clearly understand what is fact and fiction. A messy story telling will, if nothing, simply cover up gaps in both plot and budget and I can't help thinking that this is what Turner eventually did. Joking aside, what is the title all about too?
The film's 15 certificate slightly betrays some of the content, given that the film has some nasty moments. A sliced stomach starts to open to reveal unpleasant things. A throat is viciously slit. A head is blown clean off its shoulders. For sure, the gore is certainly there, though it has to be said that the tone of things never quite manages to make this sinister enough to make the film truly frightening. And in spite of their apparent fate, squeamish viewers need not concern themselves over seeing what happens to the children because that is left entirely to the imagination.
The cast is fairly competent too. No big names here, but lots of B list actors that have cropped up in all sorts of pictures. Isaiah Washington (previously seen in Ghost Ship) works well as the only black man in the group, balancing prejudice from his peers with the nightmare of what happened in the house. Henry Thomas is a likeable lead - if a child murdering bank robber could ever be such a thing - although not terribly charismatic. His partner and love interest Annabelle (Nicki Lynn) is a good combination of soft and hard and the pair of them work well throughout the film towards the inevitable conclusion. Muse Watson's "Father" is a fiery, malevolent fellow who, in all honesty, is rather underused.
In all, Dead Birds is a disappointing concoction of failed potential and your interest wanes as the story progresses. There are some (run of the mill) jumps and some nasty moments, but these are lost amidst a sea of confused story telling and wasted opportunities. This could have been something very good and instead comes out as something decidedly average.
A group of Confederate soldiers hole up in an abandoned plantation after robbing a bank, and find themselves at the mercy of supernatural forces.