Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.”
Before screenwriter Simon Barrett infiltrated the mainstream through his collaborations with Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch), he wrote some other interesting genre flicks that deserve widespread attention in their own right. Case in point is the Alex Turner-directed Dead Birds. While I also highly recommend their movie Red Sands (which is thematically similar to this one), Dead Birds is a gem that aims high in terms of ambition and succeeds for the most part. Let’s discuss this delightfully spooky little film.
What’s it about?
The year is 1863, and America is engulfed in a Civil War. But one group of bandits — William (Henry Thomas), Sam (Patrick Fugit), Annabelle (Nicki Aycox), Clyde (Michael Shannon), Joseph (Mark Boone Junior) and Todd (Isaiah Washington) — are only interested in stealing some gold and fleeing to Mexico. After robbing a Confederate bank — in a gore-splattered scene that features a head explosion and a kid being shot — the ragtag band of murdering thieves decide to hide in an abandoned plantation to wait the night out. It seems like a solid plan, but it turns out the area has a gruesome history and the horrors contained within its premises makes their presence felt.
Every thief finds themselves experiencing different supernatural encounters involving spooks, monsters, and figures from the plantation’s past. But they decide to stay put because escaping to Mexico with the gold is their top priority. Sure, the plantation is a nightmare, but there’s a storm outside and there are soldiers roaming around looking for the thieves. Really, it’s one of those f’d if you do, f’d if you don’t situations.
Why it’s sublime
I’m a sucker for a good horror-western, and Dead Birds blends both genres extremely well. While most of the movie takes place in a single location, the derelict plantation and surrounding cornfields help give the movie a convincing period setting. It also doesn’t hurt that the cast is made up of actors who play excellent dirty outlaws, and everything from their costumes to their guns are quite authentic.
Of course, it takes more than good production values and grizzled performances to make a movie sublime. Fortunately, Dead Birds hits a bunch of high notes. One of my favorite elements of the film is how it revolves around a group of murdering, thieving bastards and forces us to spend time with them. It’s established from the outset how rotten to the core these outlaws are, but chances are you’ll find yourself rooting for them anyway.
But this is the Old West, and it’s survival of the fittest. Let’s also bear in mind that these bandits rob from Confederate soldiers, who support slavery, racism, and other awful man-made atrocities. In this case, the bandits are the lesser of the evils. And regardless of your moral predictions on who to root for, the thieves’ plight is still quite spooky.
Dead Birds features some of the more conventional haunted house trappings — mysterious footprints, creaky floorboards, mysterious whispers, invisible specters, ghost children — but it ups the ante by throwing some gruesome practical creature FX (one scene is right up there with that scene in Alien), necromancy, and a disturbing allegory about slavery into the cauldron. Dead Birds has some comments to make about America’s sordid past, and they’re handled well. The film shows how slaves were used to merely satisfies the needs and whims of their owners, but how this message is employed here is truly gruesome. Essentially, the slaves were used as human sacrifices so a white plantation owner could bring his family back from the dead. Dead Birds isn’t the first horror movie to explore this topic, but it’s one of the most effective in getting its point across.
Credit also must be given to cinematographer Steve Yedlin for the movie’s visually pleasing qualities, which play a huge part in the overall creep factor. He works magic with the dimly-lit interiors and uses shadow to eerie effect. These days he works on blockbusters, but his talent was evident from the get-go.
And in conclusion…
Dead Birds is a low-key horror movie with enough interesting ideas on display to make it feel bigger. In addition to its admirable depiction of a bygone era and sociopolitical commentary, there’s a lot more to unpack. The occult mythology isn’t full explained, but the ambiguity works in its favor and adds an element that feels sort of cosmic. More than anything, though, it’s a movie that handles the horror elements well, and brings enough originality to the table to stand out from the endless heap of other movies that take place in haunted, isolated locations.