Dead Birds

Concept of transplanting horror genre tropes into the Civil War's bloody soil is about as inspired as the dull "Dead Birds" ever gets. Nineteenth-century setting won't dampen horror market potential as much as a lack of true frights, with limited theatrical and better vid prospects in sight.

William - Henry Thomas Sam - Patrick Fugit Annabelle - Nicki Aycox Clyde - Michael Shannon Father - Muse Watson Joseph - Mark Boone Junior Todd - Isaiah Washington

Concept of transplanting horror genre tropes into the Civil War’s bloody soil is about as inspired as the dull “Dead Birds” ever gets. Although playing time comes in less than 90 minutes, tyro helmer Alex Turner’s pic stretches out for much too long the revelations about a cursed Alabama mansion and the horrors faced there by a gang of thieves. Nineteenth-century setting won’t dampen horror market potential as much as a lack of true frights, with limited theatrical and better vid prospects in sight.

In 1863, during the heart of the war, a ragtag gang led by William (Henry Thomas, under a beard) robs a bank in Fairhope, Ala., of bags of Confederate gold, blowing away some Rebel troops in the process. Shootout is loaded with blood-splatter effects.

Damsel Annabelle (Nicki Aycox) is William’s lover and part of the gang who flee ahead of the law in search of a house owned by the Hollister family.

Popular on Variety

As in the standard circle of movie crooks, the good, bad and ugly mix and clash — William allies with younger brother Sam (Patrick Fugit) and seemingly free black man Todd (Isaiah Washington), against snarling Clyde (Michael Shannon) and beefy Joseph (Mark Boone Junior, by far the thesp most in-period).

The path to the Hollister manse is full of bad signs, from a man’s body fixed to a scarecrow pole to a dead bird and a strange skinned creature that bursts out of a corn field.

None of these deter William from ordering the group to stay put for the night, with an escape to Mexico in the plans. Clyde, natch wants the gold for himself and Joseph, and the gang goes searching around the place — which reveals itself to be clearly haunted. One by one, gang members meet bad ends, from forces — sometimes visible, sometimes not — inside the decrepit house.

Although Turner is skilled enough in basic staging, he tempts fate once too often in his habit of extending scenes. A full 50 minutes transpires until Sam, wounded during the robbery, appears possessed by the spirit of the house’s evil patriarch (Muse Watson), whose ghoulish efforts to save the life of his sick wife are clumsily explained in Simon Barrett’s undernourished script.

The cast tends to slump along grimly without much in the way of humor or surprises. Thomas sallies forth with resolution but not much spirit, while good actors like Washington and Boone Junior have little to do except search for phantoms. Aycox is much too modern for Annabelle.

Pic is distinguished by a complex, creepy soundtrack and itchy score by Peter Lopez. Production designer Leslie Keel and lenser Steve Yedlin pour on the gloomy atmospherics, but visual effects grow repetitive to a risible degree.

Dead Birds

Production: A Silver Nitrate Pictures presentation of a Deviant Films production. (International sales: Silver Nitrate Pictures, Studio City, Calif.) Produced by Ash Shah, David Hillary, Timothy Peternel. Executive producers, Sundip Shah, Barry Brooker. Co-producers, Jim Busfield, Isaiah Washington, Simon Barrett. Co-executive producer, Scott Lumpkin. Directed by Alex Turner. Screenplay, Simon Barrett.

Crew: Camera (FotoKem color), Steve Yedlin; editor, Brian Anton; music, Peter Lopez; production designer, Leslie Keel; set decorator, Chris Maynard; costume designer, Michael T. Boyd; makeup, Dean C. Jones; sound (Dolby Digital), Whit Norris; supervising sound editors, Christopher Eakins, John Marquis; visual effects supervisor, Youngki Lee; visual effects, Difarm, Girl Studio; special makeup and creature effects, Robert Hall, Almost Human; stunt coordinator, Doug Sloan; associate producers, Laura Warner, Doug Wroan, Chris Fisher; assistant director, Nicholas Lee; casting, Shannon Makhanian. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 14, 2004. Running time: 91 MIN.

With: William - Henry Thomas Sam - Patrick Fugit Annabelle - Nicki Aycox Clyde - Michael Shannon Father - Muse Watson Joseph - Mark Boone Junior Todd - Isaiah Washington

More Film

  • The Nest

    'The Nest': Film Review

    All work and no play makes Rory O’Hara a dull boy — which is to say, one can scarcely overlook the connections between Sean Durkin’s subtly unsettling second feature, “The Nest,” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Although the obsessive dad Law plays here doesn’t go unhinged quite so spectacularly as Jack Nicholson did after moving the [...]

  • Tiziana Soudani

    Tiziana Soudani, Prominent Swiss Producer, Dies

    Swiss producer Tiziana Soudani, who through her Amka Films shepherded prizewinning films by prominent directors from nearby Italy, such as Alice Rohrwacher and Silvio Soldini, as well as by emerging talents in Switzerland and Africa, has died after a struggle with brain cancer. She was in her mid 60s, though her exact age was not immediately verifiable. [...]

  • Time's Up U.K. Teams With British

    British Stars Carey Mulligan, Himesh Patel Compile 'Alternative BAFTA' Nominees List

    British stars including Carey Mulligan, Himesh Patel and Gemma Arterton have contributed to an ‘Alternative BAFTAs’ list of nominees that honors talent overlooked by this year’s awards. The campaign is organized by Time’s Up U.K., which is rolling out a social media blitz this week in the lead-up to Sunday’s BAFTA awards honoring the women [...]

  • Rebecca Hall appears in The Night

    'The Night House': Film Review

    A knack for creepy atmospherics and individual scares goes a long way in the horror genre, and it takes “The Night House” pretty far. Though this tale of a new widow’s apparent haunting gets progressively lost in a narrative maze that’s complicated without being particularly rewarding, . Rebecca Hall plays Beth, an upstate New York [...]

  • Herself

    Amazon Studios Buys Phyllida Lloyd's 'Herself' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Amazon Studios has nabbed North American rights to Phyllida Lloyd’s “Herself,” an Irish drama about a woman who builds her dream house after escaping an abusive marriage, Variety has learned.  The streaming service is planning a theatrical release for later this year. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it enjoyed a warm [...]

  • Blast Beat

    'Blast Beat': Film Review

    Back home in Bogota, teen brothers Carly and Mateo — played by siblings (and Disney Channel veterans) Mateo and Moisés Arias — are metal-blasting, skateboard-riding punks, and reluctant partners in crime. Carly, the sensible one, can’t prevent Mateo from dynamiting a dollhouse. But he’ll swoop in, hair flapping like a vampire’s cape, to rescue his [...]

  • Rebecca Hall appears in The Night

    Rebecca Hall's 'The Night House' Sells to Searchlight Out of Sundance

    Searchlight Pictures is closing in on the worldwide distribution rights to “The Night House,” a supernatural thriller that premiered to strong reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, insiders close to the deal said. Directed by David Bruckner and starring Rebecca Hall, the deal is reportedly valued at roughly $12 million. It marks the first [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content