Starring Henry Thomas, Nicki Aycox, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon, Mark Boone Jr., Isaiah Washington
Directed by Alex Turner
Dirty, gangrene-ridden filmic accounts of the violent conflict between the North and the South, I could see, would bore some to the point of suicide. Not me. If it’s engaging enough and not some backyard reenactment of the Civil War with your neighbor Bob, I’ll jump into the trenches for two or three hours of blood-soaked history. And wouldn’t ya know it, this modestly budgeted period piece from newcomer Alex Turner dishes on the history (we’re in the late-1800s for this one) as well as some heavy gore and otherworldly Lovecraftian heebie-jeebies for a mostly satisfying feast. That is, if you can withstand its unhurried storytelling pace these tales of America’s yesteryear can’t seem to shake (it ain’t no Glory, I’ll say that much).
Turner’s luck as a first-timer is beyond what most fledglings are granted with: a strong cast, a taut – if simple – script and Tim Burton’s thriftiness with the dinero. You see, Turner got to use the “town set” Burton’s production crew had originally built for Big Fish. Too nice to tear down, the block-or-so-long streetscape survived – fortunate for the Dead Birds troupe because the location is used to open the film and it sets a precedent for the rest of the painstaking attention for detail we can plainly see bathed beneath the blood.
This small town I speak of has a new coat of crimson by the time Birds‘ band of criminals ride out in a hail of bullets following a bold bank heist where they make off with four sacks of gold. A trail of bodies is left behind including one poor sap whose head is blown to croutons ala Fulci’s kid cranium-shot in The Beyond. Unfortunately a little boy is picked off in the process by leader-of-the-thieves, William (Thomas). It’s a chunk of karma evil enough to haunt the gang as they arrive at their hide-out: an old plantation house set behind a dried field of corn. It’s here they’re attacked by a toothy creature identified as a “hairless boar” which is quickly dismissed for more pressing issues, hunkering down for the night indoors and protecting the gold. Weird then turns to f*cked up as manifestations begin to reveal the house’s past.
The build-up is a long one and the pay-off is drippy with sacrifice victims but the frights could’ve worked a whole lot better if there were some discernibly likeable characters among the gristly lot. Turner keeps each scene rich with color and every frame creative in the composition department (May production designer, Leslie Keel, and d.p., Steve Yedlin, were on board) even right up to the very end when the story perilously threatens to split at the stitches. However, it remains courageously cryptic, never succumbing to needless exposition. Dead Birds never flinches, takes the genre to a time few have gone before and is, so far, one of 2005’s most welcome entries. And this, again, comes from Silver Nitrate, the company who served us Frankenfish on a skillet last year – another surprising effort that was better than it ought to be. I look forward to their future.
Columbia’s widescreen presentation presents a sharp and atmospheric picture with a uniformly strong sound transfer. An offering of extras usually fit for a more popular (ahem, successful) film are here for the taking – an unusual act for Columbia Tri-Star who is more akin to giving us the cold shoulder in the bonus features department when the movie’s not, say, Spider-Man.
To begin with, a drunken producer welcomes us to the Alabama set in Making Dead Birds (27m 10s), the disc’s main featurette. It’s filled with more laughs than you’d think, all of them stemming from unintentionally humorous on-set incidents, for example, when Turner learns that some of his crew are part of a local inmate reintegration program. They make great electricians, apparently. We also get a peek at some of the alternative creature designs created by Robert Hall’s Almost Human FX. From the Special Features menu press left on your remote and you’ll open the 6m 37s Easter egg entitled Showboat & Boomer, a series of interviews between actors Michael Shannon and Mark Boone Jr. – two of the film’s highlights who are seen here hamming it up and exchanging friendly verbal slams.
An audio commentary with Turner accompanies all five ho-hum deleted scenes. He also flies solo on one of two audio commentaries where he never misses a beat to credit his crew all the while detailing the challenge of cramming in – and being grateful for – the amount of coverage he needed to make a coherent film over the amount of days he had to do it. Similar sentiments are found on the second commentary track with Turner, actor Henry Thomas, actress Nicki Aycox, screenwriter Simon Barrett and composer Peter Lopez.
Columbia has also included trailers for Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, The Grudge and Wake of Death. If you wind up a fan of Birds, like myself, you’ll be thankful for the studio’s generosity. Let’s hope they keep this up.
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Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 152 – Cloverfield Paradox & The Ritual
Last week Netflix shocked the world by not only releasing a new trailer for Cloverfield Paradox during the Superbowl, but announcing the film would be available to stream right after the game. In a move no one saw coming, Netflix shook the film industry to it’s very core. A few days later, Netflix quietly released horror festival darling: The Ritual.
Hold on to your Higgs Boson, because this week we’ve got a double header for ya, and we’re not talking about that “world’s largest gummy worm” in your mom’s nightstand. Why was one film marketed during the biggest sporting event of the year, and why was one quietly snuck in like a pinky in your pooper? Tune in a find out!
Meet me at the waterfront after the social for the Who Goes There Podcast episode 152!
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The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.
Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.
Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.
Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.
Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.
The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.
Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.
The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.
Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.
Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse
Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins
Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson
Directed by Peter Howitt
Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.
While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.
In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.
Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.
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