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.
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.