Monday, October 28, 2013

Dead Birds: Insert Scary Thing Here

Scary movies inspire a lot of different emotions - horror, terror, tension, dread, disgust, anxiety, sadness, take your pick - and can work in any number of different ways, which is part of why I think the distinction between horror movies and thrillers is sort of artificial and I keep just tacking toward using the term "scary movies" instead. Often they do this by getting us engaged in the story as it's presented - whether it's through identification with or sympathy for the protagonists, interest in the specifics of the situation in which they find themselves and a desire to know how they got there and what's going to happen, or just imagery plucking at the nightmare, lizard-brain depths of the subconscious with no regard for logic - we want to watch, and we feel things, and this experience tells us something about ourselves or the world that we might not know otherwise. Scary movies are really good at this because they can get at things that aren't safe, that may be uncomfortable.

Dead Birds, on the other hand, inspires little more than indifference, or maybe curiosity as to why this story was told at all.

The setting is the Civil War-era American South, and a detachment of Confederate soldiers has just made a deposit of gold at a small-town bank when they are rudely interrupted (read: gunned down in a welter of cartoonish gore) by a group of six irregulars intent on taking the gold for themselves. As they ride out of town, they make for an abandoned plantation house one of their fellow soldiers told them about before dying of his wounds. It's made clear early on that they shouldn't be riding out toward "the old Hollister place" - an itinerant preacher tells them there's no such place and they should turn back, they seem to ride through the forest for ages without any landmarks, and when they do get there, it's a big old place set back in a sea of dead corn. The scarecrow gives them the creeps (and we know this because one of them tells us that the scarecrow gives them the creeps), and a bizarre-looking beast one of them compares to a hairless mountain lion gets shot as it comes running at them through the corn. It's a pale, veiny thing that looks absolutely nothing like a mountain lion, but it doesn't seem to bother them that much.

Once they get to the house, they begin to search it to make sure they're the only ones there. And like you do after a heist, one guy starts enlisting another guy to screw the others out of their shares, we see that there's a bit of a love triangle between two of the men and the woman in their crew, and there's a freed slave who seems pretty acutely aware that they're as likely to shoot him and take his share as anything because hey, Civil War-era South. As they explore, odd things start happening - one person hears children's voices, another thinks someone else is in the house with them, there's a door to the basement they can't get open, and then they find a book…

…a book with instructions for raising the dead.

And then night falls, and a storm traps them in the house with something else.

Horror set during the historical past is a dicey proposition - not only do you need to get the audience to believe that the terrible things you depict are happening to people we should care about to some degree, but also get them to overlook the additional layer of artifice imposed by things like period settings, costumes, and dialogue. It's hard to scare people when they're acutely aware that they're just watching a movie, and nothing says "you're just watching a movie" like locations that look like sets instead of places, clothes that look like costumes instead of what people wear, and dialogue that sounds like a bad imitation instead of words that are actually said by people. These don't seem like Confederate irregulars - they're too clean, too healthy, and they talk like modern people who are trying to talk like they imagined people did in the 1800s, which means every now and then someone inserts a "I reckon" or "for true?" into the sort of shit people say now. (I'm not even sure people actually said "for true" in the 1800s, for that matter.) We're not at all transported back into the Civil War - the artificiality of the conceit never goes away.

Apart from believing them as people from another time, it's hard to care about these people at all. They're thieves, so they're unsympathetic, they're ready to turn on each other, so they're unsympathetic, and they're all taciturn and seem completely unfazed by pretty weird shit (until the third act, when the hysterics get turned up like someone said "okay, be scared…now"), which deadens any opportunity to establish a mood. Why should we care about these people?  They're barely people - they're ciphers with maybe one trait each (the leader, the woman, the kid, the asshole, the black guy, and the one who isn't any of these other things), and all of their communication is in grunts and monosyllables. A large part of the first act of this movie is people wandering around this huge house alone or in pairs, occasionally trading sentences to minimal response, reacting to nothing. I enjoy a good slow burn, but usually it's a good idea to use the time when nothing's happening to establish who these people are, so that when things do start happening, we identify or connect with the characters enough that their experiences resonate with us. The only thing we know about these people by the time the first act is done is that the leader and the woman are a couple, the kid has a crush on the woman, and the asshole wants to screw the black guy (and maybe everyone else) out of their share of the gold. Small foundation upon which to build any engagement or goodwill on the part of the audience.

Case in point: When they find the strange book - full of anatomical diagrams, arcane writing, and things drawn in what appears to be blood, someone recognizes it as a ritual for raising the dead and says so. The others basically say "huh," and keeping searching the house. Any mystery that book could provide falls dead, not just because it would make sense in context that the character who knows this might not want to share that tidbit with the others, but also because this unpleasant bit of information elicits no real reaction. This isn't some tactical realism complaint, though you'd think given some of the other stuff they've just seen by this point, it should at least make them uncomfortable that a book like this is just lying around. More importantly, it's just dropped in our laps as the audience, with no build-up, no context, and no sense that it's affecting the people on the screen. They don't care, so why should we?

This passiveness and inertia extends to the structure of the film itself. There's no sense of pacing - in the first act, barely anything happens to the protagonists, and barely anything indicates that there's any real reason for them (or us) to be worried. They're in more danger of turning on each other than anything else, but this too is communicated through monotone, mumbling conversations between people with little discernable personality, so there's no tension at all. In the second act, when weird stuff starts happening, it happens in isolation to everything else going on around the protagonists, so we see a thing happen, but nobody apart from the person affected reacts or responds to it right away, so it doesn't feel like it really matters. It's not a natural progression of events, it's just a series of scary things that have been inserted into the movie because scary things have to happen in scary movies.

This almost mechanical approach extends to the horror elements (and they really do feel like elements, rather than an organic outgrowth of these people in this place at this time) as well - unnaturally pale children appear from nowhere and suddenly turn into hideous creatures, mysterious beasts roam the corn outside the house, there's a scarecrow that creeps everyone out, people hear voices, there's the aforementioned book, and basement door that mysteriously won't open (until it does). They don't emerge from exploration or discovery or a sense that something is escalating, they just sort of happen at intervals, the characters maybe say something about them (or if it's a more direct encounter, we don't see them again for a bit, if at all), and then things continue as they did before. These moments have all of the verve and intensity of a title card insert that says "A scary thing happens now."

This tendency is ratcheted up in the third act, when the scary things are piled on fast and thick (without any real increase in tension) with a lot of exposition mixed in to tell us (rather than show us) that bad things happened here. No, really -  at two different points, a character actually stands at the foot of someone's bed and tells them what happened in this house.  And this sort of has to happen because the horrible events that are supposed to serve as the engine of evil in this place are sort of incoherent - there's some internal logic to what happens, but it still feels less like an organic series of events and more like a bunch of images and set pieces that someone thought would look cool and then worked backward to create a story that would justify inclusion of all these things. There are a number of loose ends and unexplained inconsistencies, and although I think leaving some things unexplained is generally a good thing in horror movies, here it feels less like they're being left deliberately ambiguous and more like somebody just forgot that this stuff happened after it served its purpose in whatever scene it was featured.

In the end, people die (or don't, or do) and by the time the sun rises everything is resolved (or is it…? Oooohhhh, spooky!), and we're sort of left wondering what the point was of any of it. And no, it's never clear why the film is called Dead Birds, though it's just as inert and unremarkable as one, so yay for giving me a chance to make a cheap title joke, I guess?

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable from Netflix Instant (Available on Netflix DVD)

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