When I first moved to New York City, I thought the Town That Never Weeps would be filled with hidden pockets of eccentric coolness. You know, tiny little restaurants ain't nobody heard of, bars that only a select group of regulars frequent, small parks forgotten by the baby-stroller pushing hordes and radio-blasting juvies – places to discover for yourself. It did take long to realize that, for the most part, the city is pretty frontier-less. Especially in the age of blogs and user-driven regional web sites, no patch of land remains unexplored, reviewed, and assigned a one- to five-star rating.
There are exceptions, sure. But they're few and far between. There was the old dive bar Siberia, for example. This place was well-known, but I found that very few of the many of the folks who had heard of the joint had ever actually visited. It was genuine hole being situated as it was in a subway stop – the 51st station on what was the old 1 and 9 line. Not that Siberia was the world's greatest bar or anything. It was actually pretty scruffy. The ambiance was heavily Gitmo, the furniture looked like it had been thrown on the street and the street threw it right back, the beer selection was strictly utilitarian, and the bathrooms were so ill-lit that you were forced to make a choice: either pee in the dark with the door closed for privacy or leave the door wide open so you could actually aim. I should add that both bathrooms had several fist sized holes in the wall, entry points for things that lived behind the walls of 51st Street stop. If you were gutsy enough to pee in the dark, you'd get treated to the sound of things creeping out of their lair to see what you were and to guess at whether or not you were edible.
Despite how dismal the joint could be, it attracted loyalists. Some of the regulars were simply maintenance alcoholics from the office building above the station. They were grabbing a bit of Dutch courage to steel themselves for the transition between grinding work drudgery and soul-destroying suburban home hell. But, aside from the chemically dependent boozers, there were people that could have easily gone anywhere and chose to be in the dungeon-like Siberia,
I can't speak for everybody, but part of the charm of the place for me was that it was a find. It was exactly that sort of word-of-mouth hideaway that rewarded a the adventurous with a story; it was in and of itself a prize for folks who would go a little out of their way for something unique or unusual.
I bring this up because genre entertainment often plays the same game: you think you're going to run into diamonds in the rough all over the place. You imagine that you'll stumble across that curious flick or forgotten book or what-have-you. The truth is that the field as a whole seems heavily weighted towards junk and what isn't crappola is usually thoroughly documented, reviewed, and rated.
So, imagine my surprise when, reading the reviews of horror-blogger Mermaid Heather (see sidebar), she gave a five-out-of-five review to a flick I've never heard of before. This lady has reviewed what must amount to a couple hundred flicks by now, and you can count the number of fives she's give on your fingers. And here's a complete unknown grabbing a five. Was this one of those elusive gems? A genuine find?
The flick in question is the somewhat cryptically titled 2004 film Dead Birds: a semi-Lovecraftian dark house horror set in the latter years of the Civil War. The movie begins with a bloody bank robbery. The perpetrators – a group of Confederate deserters, a freedman, and a nurse – take their loot and head of to a plantation their leader knows to be deserted. On finding their way to the old house, the gang finds themselves dragged in the supernatural carnage left there when the mansion's previous owner accidentally-on-purpose tore open a hole between this universe and the next, letting all sorts of otherworldly nastiness pour through. Ultimately, the flicks boils down to a simple main conflict: can this armed gang keep their crap together long enough to make it through a single night on the plantation?
I was not disappointed by Dead Birds (the title, according to the director, refers to a dead bird that appears in the yard of the plantation, evidence that suggests nothing can survive the curse of the plantation). The first feature-length flicker from director Alex Turner (son of famed jazz album cover photographer Pete Turner) plays like the work of comfortably established director. It looks polished, achieves a level of tension that threatens to leave the viewer physically spent at times, and is confident enough with its elliptical plot that it makes demands of it viewers without lapsing into lazy storytelling or easy explanations. Shot on location at an actual decaying plantation house, Turner and his crew make the most of the dim period lighting, achieving some set-ups that would be the envy of directors working with much bigger budgets.
There are some flaws in the flick. The period setting is essential to the story, which makes the occasional anachronisms all the more jarring – apparently the nurse in this gang has figured out the importance of sterilization well in advance of the rest of the medical establishment. Also, despite a pretty nifty creature design, the CGI effects distance the viewer rather than pull them in.
These don't take away from the fact DB is a genuinely good flick. I'm somewhat baffled as to how this movie didn’t garner more attention on its initial release. With so much substandard junk littering the low-budget field, DB stands head-and-shoulders above most of its b-flick kin. The flick is the most promising debut I've seen in awhile and well worth checking out.
As an aside, the film also got me thinking about how odd it is that slavery doesn't play a significant role in the collective imagination of horror cinema. Our various modern wars, from WW I to the current war, have given us all manner of monstrosity. The various nightmares of the Western expansion have resurfaced in the form of cannibal flicks, sundry Native American tropes (from wendigos to that ever-popular cause of trouble: the Indian burial ground), and even camp mash-ups (see Billy the Kid versus Dracula). The Civil War makes its appearance, but most often in the form of weird Southern revenge flicks like 2,000 Maniacs and it re-makes and their sequels. Even the American Revolution has given us a single well-known icon: the Headless Horseman.
But slavery – a 400-year-old display of horror and human cruelty played out on an unimaginable scale – seems to have inspired very little in the way of horror flicks. Slavery played minor part in the Candyman franchise and I can think of minor a reference to it in I Walked with a Zombie, but otherwise it seems remarkably absent as a topic in horror cinema. This strikes me as curious. Horror often finds its greatest traction in the stresses and anxieties of a culture and I submit to you that the legacy of slavery remains one of the greatest sources of anxiety in our culture. Even from a strictly thematic standpoint, you'd think it would come up more. One of the most shopworn narrative devices in horror cinema is that the deeply wronged seek revenge in horrific ways. What group of people were ever so deeply wronged as the victims of slavery? And yet, even in Dead Birds, the fact that our ill-fated plantation owning necromancer owned slaves is a fairly minor plot point. He's cursed not by the fact that he systematically visited the results of the one of most brutal system of de-humanization ever devised upon a group of innocents, but by the considerably more spookshow idea that he dabbled forbidden magic – the latter apparently being the more sinister crime.
Perhaps the issue's too sensitive even for horror folk to touch. Perhaps people are afraid to drive off white audiences. Who knows? Whatever the cause, it seems like a conspicuous absence.