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Dead Birds (2004)

There are worse things than dying

Directed by:

Alex Turner

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 87 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

On DVD

Country: United States

It is 1863, during America’s Civil War, and after carrying out a bloody bank robbery in the Alabama town of Fairhope, five criminals decide to hide out overnight in an isolated old farm. The strange creature that charges out of the cornrows at them as they approach the property turns out to be only the first of many monstrous apparitions that they will encounter, and soon tensions within the group arising from guilt, jealousy, greed and racism find their echo in the terrible history of the house, as its past horrors return to play themselves out anew.

There is something eerily familiar about ‘Dead Birds’. Apart from deploying just about every cliché of the haunted house subgenre, ‘Dead Birds’ also evokes motifs from a broad range of specific films – the necromantic book and demonic revenants of ‘The Evil Dead’, the haunted well and ladderless barnloft of The Ring, the satanic crops of Children of the Corn, the basement ritual sacrifice of The Amityville Horror, the living scarecrow of Jeepers Creepers 2, and an exploding head very near the beginning as in Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead.

Yet if all haunted house movies are about the return of the past, ‘Dead Birds’ is also set in the past, so that it assumes a chronological priority over the many films that it mimics and thus inventively appropriates them into its own spooky legacy. The film’s circularity (ending with the house luring yet more fresh blood to reenact its awful drama) points to a horror with a very long future ahead of it, and this impression is only reinforced by the existence of similar films set in our own time – as though ‘Dead Birds’ were a prequel to them all. In this way writer Simon ‘Frankenfish’ Barrett puts the clichés of his plot to good work, suggesting that the very same divisiveness, inhumanity and prejudice which produced the horrors of the American Civil War (and allow his characters to rob and kill others with little remorse), far from being ancient history, are still haunting the U.S. (and its films) today. The supernatural elements of ‘Dead Birds’ might be dismissed as pure fantasy, but the reality of slavery that underlies it is a horror whose legacy will not so easily be dispelled.

Add to this a cast (including Henry Thomas, last seen alongside a latex monster as Elliot in ‘E.T.’) whose uniform excellence is some distraction from the script’s barebones characterisation, a spine-chillingly piercing soundtrack by Peter Lopez, the complete lack of anyone to root for (always a plus in horror) and the unexpected but welcome appearance of excessive gore right from the getgo – and you have a film which, although by no means perfect, certainly earns its place in the annals of horror.

It's Got: An exploding head, demonic children, something in the well, strange bestial creatures amongst the corn - and plenty of loose ends (including the title) which, though a sign of poor writing in most other films, here just add to the mood of uncanniness.

It Needs: Perhaps a little more characterisation - and the repetition in the flashbacks might have been edited out.

DVD Extras Aspect ratio 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; optional subtitles (Arabic, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish); directors commentary; second commentary by director, writer and cast; Making of Dead Birds featurette (27min); Showboat & Boonie featurette; five deleted scenes, with optional commentary (7min). Version reviewed: Dead Birds (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) DVD Extras Rating: 9/10

Summary

In this prequel to all American haunted house movies, the past is just like the future.

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