Dead Birds (2004)
In 1863, a group of bank robbers hide out in an abandoned plantation-style mansion, only to find the house has deadly secrets of its own. Giving us a Wild West-themed horror movie with an inexplicable name and a bit of demonic possession chucked in.
The film starts off with a bang - several in fact - in the robbery scene, which features lots of squirting CGI blood spurts and a flash of gore. But as the characters arrive at their derelict destination, it soon starts to feel like no cliche has been left unturned. We have a big creepy house, a dark night, a storm that seems to come and go when needed, a locked cellar, and a mysterious book with creepy drawings that could have been in The Evil Dead.
Surprisingly for a low budget movie, the acting performances are pretty good, despite the actual characters being bland and uninteresting. And movie trivia fans might get excited to spot little Elliot from E.T. all grown up and playing the handsome but uncharismatic male lead. So grown up, he even gets to engage in a bit of unerotic, fully-clothed, PG-rated sex. Phew.
For me, the film's biggest flaws were technical ones, particularly the lighting. Characters walk around holding storm lamps that don't flicker and look suspiciously battery operated, and are clearly not the light source illuminating the rest of the room. Exterior night scenes are sometimes well lit, as if under big electric lamps, and sometimes lit only by the stormlamps. And for some reason, when the house is in the background it appears to be illuminated, as if someone has fitted little patio lights. Not to forget the scene when the characters approached the house entrance in daylight, but as they walked through the door it suddenly became pitch black outside.
As part of the horror element, a number of very predictable jump scares are slotted in. You might not know what the actual scare will be, but you always know exactly when it's coming. And the lack of tension in the build up just makes these feel a bit unimaginative.
On the positive side, the film looks impressive for its low budget, largely due to re-using existing sets from a previous film (Tim Burton's 'Big Fish') and some good photography. The CGI is unmistakenly CGI, but it works very well in this. And I really liked the psychological aspect to the horror - the visions and voices playing with the characters' paranoia, and possibly their sanity. The climactic scene is actually very effective, and is by far the most (if not only) tense part of the film. It has an interesting 'twist' ending, which does feel a bit like an afterthought, but I still liked it.
Dead Birds manages to create atmosphere, but not much tension, and the final product is creepy without being particularly scary. The house has an intriguing back story, but unfortunately takes a long time to get to it. The middle act seems to lag quite a bit, and I did find myself checking my watch a couple of times. However, the time period setting gave it some originality, and it's fairly watchable thanks to the decent looking production values and good performances. It's worth a watch if there's nothing else on TV, but I wouldn't go out of my way to track down a copy.