Stream This? is a feature devoted to exploring and reviewing some of the lesser known and often-times weirder films that can be found on various streaming services. Today, Roy Buckingham examines the 2004 film Dead Birds.
When I first proposed Screen This? as a regular feature, I wanted it to play out like a movie version of roulette. I choose a streaming site, spin the wheel as I look at all the films that I have not seen, then watch the chosen movie to see if I happen to find a gem – a diamond in the rough or perhaps a chunk of fool’s gold.
This time my journey took me to the horror-themed streaming service Shudder. Despite there being a lot of specifically-themed services released recently, Shudder has become a power player. It is not only an excellent hub for those who love scary movies, but it is also responsible for offering legendary B-movie film critic Joe Bob Briggs a staging ground for a national comeback with his excellent new show The Last Drive-In. So it was that I took my remote and flipped around until a film named Dead Birds caught my attention.
This 2004 film stars Henry Thomas (aka Elliot from E.T.), Michael Shannon and Isaiah Washington and that cast is half the reason I decided to give this movie a shot. The other was that this film is a rarity – a sub-genre piece in a sub-genre. There are relatively few Western/Civil War movies made in the 21st Century and even few horror movies set during that time period.
Dead Birds centers upon a group of Confederate Army deserters who steal gold from the Confederate Army and go on the run. They squat for rest in an abandoned plantation that just happens to be haunted due to some act of evil that occurred there in the past. While dealing with the malicious ghosts, the deserters also must fight two demons – greed and distrust.
The film was executed with the pacing and style of a 1970s’ era horror movie, with burnt colors and a plot that runs as slow as molasses. While this slow pace may turn-off some viewers, those who enjoy a good slow-burning story (like House of the Devil) will enjoy Dead Birds. The anticipation of something happening when we know more than the characters can be just as thrilling as the scares themselves. In this case, much like in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the crew’s trust in one another slowly cracks as the glimmer of gold tempts them all, even as they ignore all the signs that there is something not quite right about the plantation they’ve chosen as a camp site, starting with all the dead birds surrounding the house.
As with any typical horror film, there are jump scares mixed-in throughout. Early on, the jump scares are effective, but they become less so in the third act as all Hell starts breaking loose. Indeed, the whole movie bottoms-out during the climax and coda. Despite some interesting twists, the events of the first two-thirds of the movie suggest a stronger ending than the one we get.
Despite this, the cast is enjoyable to watch. Henry Thomas is an underrated actor, and he turns in a good performance as the leader trying to keep things glued together while he slowly spirals mentally. It’s also interesting to see a pre-Grey’s Anatomy debacle Isaiah Thomas as the former slave who happens to be one step ahead of the rest of the group. The real joy, however, is seeing Michael Shannon as a young actor before his breakout turns in both Boardwalk Empire and Man of Steel.
For these performances alone, I still would recommend Dead Birds if you are a fan of Weird Western tales or supernatural ghost stories in general. It’s a marginal recommendation, but this is not the worst thing I have ever seen.