31 Days of Halloween, abandoned plantation, Alex Turner, American Civil War, cinema, cornfields, curses, Dead Birds, extreme violence, favorite films, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, Henry Thomas, horror, horror film, horror films, horror movies, horror westerns, Isaiah Washington, Mark Boone Junior, Michael Shannon, Movies, Muse Watson, Nicki Aycox, North vs South, Patrick Fugit, racism, scarecrows, set in 1860s, Simon Barrett, slavery, Steve Yedlin, stolen gold, The Burrowers, voodoo curses
In the world of horror films, hyphenates and hybrids are king: horror-comedies, sci-fi horror, teen slasher flicks (as opposed to geriatric slasher flicks, one assumes), rom-zom-coms, found-footage films, military-based horror films…if two disparate styles/genres/things can be forcibly jammed together, the horror industry has probably already done it. Of all of these various amalgams, however, one of the most under-represented, but endlessly entertaining, variations must certainly be the horror-Western.
While horror-Westerns appeared to have a bit of a renaissance in the ’50s and ’60s (albeit one composed entirely of questionable fare like Billy the Kid vs Dracula (1966) and The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)), you can count the number of “modern-day” horror-Westerns on a remarkably small number of fingers. Among exceptional films like The Burrowers (2008) and Ravenous (1999), there are also odious entries like the obnoxious Wesley Snipes-starring turkey Gallowwalkers (2012) and The Quick and the Undead (2006): while a Western setting can be glorious fodder for a horror film, it can also lead to any number of tired, stupid “zombie gunslinger” clichés, lazy ideas that are easily as tedious as cheap, cash-in found-footage films or dime-a-dozen zombie flicks.
Of the modern-day horror-Westerns that “get it right,” Alex Turner’s Dead Birds (2004) is easily one of the highlights, ranking right there with the aforementioned Ravenous and The Burrowers as some of my favorite modern horror films. There’s a quiet elegance to Dead Birds that’s almost hypnotizing, a notion of stepping off the beaten path and into a world that’s just slightly askew from ours. Thanks to an excellent script by genre mainstay Simon Barrett and some truly gorgeous cinematography courtesy of frequent Rian Johnson collaborator Steve Yedlin, Dead Birds is a subtle chiller that looks great and is smarter than the average bear. The resulting film is a slow-burner that still manages to incorporate jump scares (albeit fewer than the typical modern horror film) to good effect, while offering up an ending that should give audiences something to mull over for days to come.
The film begins in Alabama, in 1863, at the tail-end of the American Civil War. A group of gunmen – William (Henry Thomas), Sam (Patrick Fugit), Joseph (Mark Boone Junior), Clyde (Michael Shannon), Todd (Isaiah Washington) and Annabelle (Nicki Aycox) – have just made off with a large shipment of gold after a brazen, bloody bank robbery. After making it out of the town, the group decides to bunker down at an old homestead, the Hollister place. When they finally make it to the place, it ends up being a sprawling, abandoned plantation, the main house decrepit and unbelievably creepy at the end of a massive cornfield. Trudging through the wall of corn, the group makes two equally unsettling discoveries: a scarecrow that’s probably a human body stuck up on a pole and a bizarre, small, hairless creature, vaguely humanoid in shape, that Sam handily kills with a bullet to the head. As foreboding moments go, it doesn’t get much more foreboding than that.
Once the group makes it to the farmhouse, the usual tendencies to fight and form sub-groups take over: Clyde and Joseph hate that they’re getting paid as much as Todd, who’s black, and scheme to keep all the gold for themselves; William and Annabelle continue the courtship that appears to have begun in a military field hospital and Sam seems to be getting more fidgety and paranoid by the minute. When the group begins to see strange apparitions throughout the house, demonic things that look like children with hollow, empty eyes, they come to the realization that they might have stepped smack-dab into quite a bit of trouble. As the group try to make sense of what’s going, they’ll gradually come to learn the full story of the plantation’s former owner and the terrible steps he went through to get back his lost love. If they’re lucky, the group will make it out with their hides, if not their minds, intact. If not, however, they’ll find themselves as just another part of the plantation’s terrible past, trapped in the cornfield until the end of time.
There’s an awful lot working in Dead Birds’ favor (great cast, good effects, fantastically creepy setting, authentic period detail) but the feather in the cap definitely ends up being Simon Barrett’s exceptionally sharp, intelligent script. Rather than traffic in tired horror movie clichés (other than the nearly ubiquitous “scary-faced” people, of course), the film comes up with a fresh, nicely realized mythology of its own, one that manages to incorporate voodoo curses, demons and no small amount of irony. In a genre where story often feels like something you trip over on your way to the next gore shot, Dead Birds is definitely a breath of fresh air.
As a horror film, Turner’s movie hits all of its marks: the violence can be sudden and intense, the atmosphere is thick with tension and the scares are genuine and frequent. While the film doesn’t really traffic in setpieces, ala something like Suspiria (1977), there are still plenty of memorable scenes, such as the moment in the final third where we get a good look at the scarecrow and some really spooky bits involving the demonic children. Unlike more “cookie-cutter” films, we get to know and like (for the most part) the characters in Dead Birds, making their inevitable fates all that much more impactful.
In particular, Henry Thomas (yeah, Elliott from E.T. (1982)) is a great square-jawed protagonist, while genre vet Michael Shannon and Sons of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Junior make a great pair as the evil-leaning Clyde and Joseph. Most importantly, the ensemble works really well together, bringing a sense of cohesion to the production that’s likewise missing in more slap-dash films. None of these characters exist as mere cannon fodder, which makes the overall film that much more meaningful.
Despite positively adoring Alex Turner’s debut feature, I ended up being massively let-down by his follow-up, the Iraq-set Red Sands (2009), a sloppy affair which was full of great ideas and ramshackle execution. Here, Turner gets everything just perfect, turning out an absolute modern classic, in the process. Here’s to hoping that Turner has another Dead Birds up his sleeve for the future: films like this don’t come along every day but you can’t fault me for being greedy and wanting a few more.