There’s a tendency in low-budget horror films to pack as many scares as possible into a movie and let the story fall by the wayside. Most of these scares are jump-scares accompanied by a loud screech on the soundtrack but lack substance and end up being quite forgettable. Likewise, since the story never really takes off, there is little left over for the viewer to grasp when the credits roll. Usually this is accredited to over enthusiasm on the filmmaker’s part. It’s easy to get caught up in camera tricks and editing techniques to elicit a spooky moment and overlook the rest of the craft.
THE SINGING BIRD WILL COME, the directorial debut of Iain Ross McNamee swaps these cheap scares in favour of atmosphere and story. At times it almost feels like the ghost element of the plot has completely disappeared and the film has become a family comedy instead. There are many scenes of lighthearted fun and dramatic tension between father and daughter, friends and rivals and co-workers. In fact, the scares come in a separate package, all of them happening in a particular place at a particular time, so as to make it feel as though the film is really more of a mosaic of interconnected stories. There’s the family plot, the relationship conflicts, the friendly mentor with sinister secrets, and, of course the ghost. Each segment could be its own separate story.
This has an interesting effect on the film as a single piece. There’s a new trend among modern filmmakers like Edgar Wright or Baz Luhrmann who mash genre conventions against each other as single filmmaking techniques to achieve the same result classical filmmakers tried to accomplish with camera angles and lighting cues. THE SINGING BIRD WILL COME does this quite well. All the familiar tropes are there. The John Carpenter background/foreground utilization, the Japanese anime-style closeups, and the British melodrama quirks of small-town life, all mixing together to create a sense of time and place. Behind it all, there’s a ghost story, lurking.
The story is quite simple. Lauren (Gillian Harker) returns home after her mother’s death and a breakup with her boyfriend and tries to get back on her feet while looking after her father. She takes a job at a restaurant with a “haunted” past and attends a lecture about the town’s history of witch trials. We’ve seen this all before and the story never really goes anywhere truly unexpected, but it sticks to its path with glee and for under 5000 pounds, an impressive feat, looks pretty great. The movie is effective. It’s never too scary, never too cheesy, but it works quite well as a genre balance. The locations on the other hand, could rival set designs from movies like SLEEPY HOLLOW or SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I get it that people like making horror films in these kind of places, what I don’t understand is why anyone would work or live there in real life.
For a budget as low as this one, everything works well. I credit this to the decision by McNamee to capture the feel of a lost and found videotape. Actually all the technology in the film is analogue, save for Lauren’s cell phone, which always feels out of place. There are times when, if you’re expected a slick Hollywood film, you will be disappointed with things like the editing pace, or the crackling sound design, but this is not a Hollywood film, and using the aesthetic of home-video (without overdoing it – the tangible look of the film doesn’t ever draw attention to itself) masks the inevitable budget limitations. This is a wise move from a first time director and it shows the thought that went into making this movie work within its boundaries.
The film is scarier in its atmosphere than in its horror. There’s a palatable tension in the air, and as I mentioned earlier, it really helps that the ghost appearances are few and quite far in between. This is how ghost movies should work. Just when you think maybe the problem has gone away (disappeared, like a ghost) it returns, begging for resolution. When that resolution comes, it brings a pleasant sigh of relief, not because the movie has reached a conclusion, but because you really want the mystery to be solved. The ghost acts as a nice metaphor for Lauren’s inner conflict, and you really get caught up in her life, as well as the — well, spoilers. In the end, resolution is quite welcomed.
Watch the trailer for THE SINGING BIRD WILL COME below: