Taking a narrative cue from Sam Peckinpah’s classic apocalyptic Western, The Wild Bunch, Dead Birds begins with our six outlaws riding into a small southern town and robbing its bank. Of course, things go wrong immediately and innocent blood is shed. Big mistake. The outlaws, led by William (Henry Thomas) and his more subservient brother Sam (Patrick Fugit), flee with what loot they managed to take and ride off into the woods. The trees, soil, and air feel soaked in something more unpleasant than humidity, and the outlaws—after a few surprises--end up spending the night in an abandoned mansion/plantation where things quickly get even more dangerously weird once everyone starts to have visions and notions that they are indeed not alone there.
Sadly given a straight to DVD premiere, outside of a couple of film festival screenings around the country, Dead Birds is one of the best American horror films since David Lynch’s twist on the genre, Lost Highway. Though considerably more straight-forward and traditional than Lynch’s typically skewed and genre-subverting production, Dead Birds nevertheless creates a palpable sense of doom and creepy-crawl intensity that is impressive, even in these post-Sixth Sense or post-Ringu years where mood and atmosphere rule over the more visceral, volume-eleven type horror that dominated the screens in the 1970s and ‘80s. Much of the film’s power impacts us through suggestion and ambiguity, but it also knows when to shock us in order to accomplish its ambition to pull us under its black spell. The acting is all-around excellent, especially Isaiah Washington as Todd, a freed-slave who now works strong-arm for the gang, and Patrick Fugit, who shows that Almost Famous was not a fluke. Director Alex Turner and screenwriter Simon Barrett are talents to watch, especially if they continue to persevere in crafting serious-minded, atmospheric horror films such as this.
Dead Birds is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Entertainment.